Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Back in the Saddle

As the old cowboy song croons, “I’m back in the saddle again, back where a friend is a friend…”
Teaching five days in a row (gasp!) at my school while my colleague Sofia is in Salzburg. The night before I began, I had a strong dream that I was wandering in the world, so happy and footloose and fancy free and suddenly realized, that if I retired, this could be my life. I’ve been waiting for some kind of signal from the other world or the inner world as to when my moment to decide will come and I thought, ”Hmm. Maybe this is it.”

But then I’ve taught these two days at school and it as every bit as delightful as anything else I’ve been doing with my time. Back up on the horse and trotting along merrily and it’s just fine, even more than fine. It’s fine.  A string of delightful 1st grade classes, an experimental math-music class with 7th grade, starting up with Halloween songs at Singing Time. Tomorrow more 7th and then 6th and 4 year olds and 3rd grade.

I notice my patience for kids’ random tomfoolery is thin, but not in an angry way. I just look them in the eye and call them back to task one milli-second after they transgress and let them know “Uh-uh. Life is too short for you to waste your time and mine. Get to work, buddy.“ And because I’m absolutely confident that the work I’m offering is worthy and fun and challenging, there’s not much room for negotiation. And when they see that their escape route is firmly closed and actually apply themselves and make some notable progress, why, then I praise them accordingly and everyone’s just a little bit happier.

My only complaint about being back at school is that they changed from eating lunch in the kitchen with the sociable cooks bustling around and the warmth of the oven and the bubbling tea water on the stove and everyone huddled around the central counter to food being brought into the library with a covered tablecloth. The change from being in the kitchen in the midst of the delightful activity to the food being brought down to the staff is the difference between the family feeling of eating at home and going out to a restaurant, with the cooks all hidden. I even miss my ritual “Thank you, Jane, Thank you, Patty” as I left the kitchen to go to Singing Time. (And the change is precisely because Jane and Patty retired and the new cook prefers more solitude and elbow room). Well, I’m not going to leave the school in protest, but it’s those little touches that can slowly erode the character of a school like ours. In spite of that little concern, as I said, it feels happy still to be there.

So the retirement question mark lingers and I imagine it’s not that interesting to anyone else and even I get tired of feeling like I have to ask it. Maybe I should just pretend it’s my first year and take it a day at a time. And from where I sit, looks like I’ll go back tomorrow.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Real News

What is the lens through which we see the world? For most of our time on this planet, it has been through our first-hand experience, tinted and tilted by the stories our parents, our religion, our
culture handed down. Then came the newspaper and then came the 6 o’clock news and then came the 24-hour news stations and then came Facebook/ social media and the like. What the news chooses to show and how it chooses to spin it radically forms or alters our perspective on things, mostly in unconscious ways.

So in these marvelous three days in Oklahoma, I’m experiencing the cognitive dissonance of the way I’ve assumed that this is one of the most conservative states in the country, born out by the voting record, but meeting some of the most politically aware, awake and active folks I’ve met in a while (largely centered around the teacher’s strike), personable, fun, smart and charming people, geographically aware of the world (from a game we played) and able to open the door of thinking to consider some of the perspective about children, justice and healthy community I’m offering. By meeting on the common ground of caring for children and sharing our love for music, we all can put aside our assumptions fed to us by the divisive red-blue media circus and suspend all judgment except for MLK’s wise suggestion—content of our character. And from my point of view, that bar is set high and we’re all flying over it.

On the TV over the bar, I noticed an ad featuring a politician who supported Clinton, Obama and others, with the big warning BAD FOR OKLAHOMA!! That finger pushing the fear button that stops thinking, divides us into right or wrong, keeps us from considering the character of that person and having an intelligent discussion about the real issues at stake. And though I do believe that this strategy is more self-servingly exploited by the Far Right, it happens from the other side of the political spectrum as well. What if we started talking about actual issues separate from the label of Red and Blue? Looked at actual people’s characters separate from making sure our guy wins at all costs? (Kavanaugh) Had a cultural exchange program between rural and urban folks, middle of the country and coastal folks, rich and poor folks, gay and straight folks, black and white folks, etc? So we finally can drop the adjective and just get down to “folks?”

I feel some of my mission is to tell the real news about the people I meet from Iran, from Ghana, from Colombia, places that the news and politicians have painted with their own brush and we  consumers start to accept a negative image without knowing the real story. It’s to our shame that I feel the need to do the same with the folks back home, telling them the pleasure of getting to know the folks from Oklahoma as if it were a surprise. And perhaps the folks here are telling stories about the guy from San Francisco who seemed to be okay. Imagine that!

This time here has been an affirmative model for me of how we can turn around divisiveness. I came into it open and will leave yet more open. I was able to be wholly myself and say the things I always say because I started from the assumption that we all cared to be better than we’ve been (always including me) and put it in the context of how good teaching and good music and good humor and good fellow feeling and deep respect can help us do that. Thank you to each and every one of the 30 marvelous people in Oklahoma I’ve had the pleasure to meet and engage with and hope we can all continue to meet on the common ground of Woody Guthrie’s vision, a land that is yours and mine, but most importantly, OUR land, depending on us to maintain it, sustain it and make it a place of human health, happiness and justice. Let’s keep working—together!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Back in the Wild

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that when I have free time at the end of the day, I’m starting to lean too heavily to indoor routines like checking e-mail, checking phone messages, Solitaire and the like. Surface things that pass the time, but don’t help me feel embraced by Time. So after teaching all day yesterday, I had the good sense to start walking toward the Oklahoma hills surrounding the Quartz Mountain Conference Center. Started on a sidewalk path that turned into a dirt path in the woods, that petered out into trudging through grasses that turned into hidden streams of water beneath the grass. I started bushwalking toward higher ground and came to the rock-formations that dotted the hilly landscape and began climbing up, mindful of spiny cactus wedged between rocks. Balancing and walking and sometimes leaping from rock to rock, I gradually gained elevation and got the reward of a view back to the Conference Center. Lovely.

But now it was turning toward dusk and I had the challenge of descending with no path in site. I could have backtracked down through the watery grasses, but instead, decided to take my chances navigating down through the rocks that lay ahead, with no guarantee whatsoever that they wouldn’t finally lead me to a cliff’s edge and no way to complete the descent. But down I went in good faith and one cactus sting and the sense of adventure that I’ve loved my whole life, but has started to erode with the safety and predictability of traveling from one Starbucks to the next, the bike paths with GPS on my phone, the self-enclosed hall of mirrors of Facebook, e-mail and the like. Here I was back again in the unknown, blissfully ignorant of poisonous plants or snakes or scorpions or mountain lions and the like, but happy to be jumping from rock to rock as a 67-year old grandpa. Great exercise, by the way, using the whole body, plus activating the slumbering intuitive inner GPS, plus the different textures of spongy grass, moss-covered rocks, sharp cacti, gnarly trees.

Miraculously, I found my way to the road before it got dark and felt a spring in my step different from the post-email-check feeling. The dinner tasted a bit more delicious, the company I kept a bit more interesting, the world a bit more interesting. And I believe I slept better as well. Tomorrow, I’ll be most of the day in the windowless carpeted room evoking the wild through music, song and dance, but at the end of the day, I believe I’ll take another walk.

PS I have some nice photos to add to the above, but Verizon has blocked my i-Phone for reasons unknown and I can't upload the photos. Aargh!!!! Hopefully soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


So here I am in Oklahoma and I remember precisely the last time I came here. It was the day after Obama got elected. I was picked up at the airport and driven three hours to the workshop site by a woman and her 6-year old son who was talking about how bad Obama was because his grandfather said so.  At that time in 2008, Oklahoma was the only state in which not a single county went for Obama.

But I entered the teaching of my 3-day course in good humor, to say the least and ended up having a fine time with all the participants. I discovered that many got to teach music to their kids in public schools five times a week while politically left San Francisco had denied music to their kids for some 30 years at that point! We had a good-natured respectful time together (and truth be told, I suspect many of them were of a liberal mindset).

Coming here again on the heels of the Kavanaugh Circus of Shame, it was a different feeling. Again, I was picked up by someone who drove me three hours through the remarkably flat and empty landscape. By the end of the drive, I was in love with Oklahoma! Here’s why:


• My driver was part of the teacher’s strike mentioned in Michael Moore’s recent movie, one of thousands of pissed-off teachers who banded together and said “We ain’t gonna take it” and stormed the Capitol. At the end, they got a long-overdue raise.

• Many people’s eyes were opened to how the corrupt good-ole-boys system works and there were lines around the corner changing party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

• A few decided to actually run again candidates— and beat them! Mostly from massive grass-roots door-knocking.

• My driver described herself as part of a “mixed marriage.” She’s Democrat, he’s Republican. Her sons are twins and also split down party lines. But still they all talk to each other!

• Before coming here, I looked up information about the Tulsa Riot, a horrific murdering and destroying property of relatively affluent black folks in 1921. (Look it up and read the whole thing.) But what impressed me was that after years of keeping it out of the history books, a Race Riot Commision was formed in 2001 and unlike the current shabby FBI “investigation,” their thorough work confirmed the details of what had happened. The State of Oklahoma later passed legislation establishing scholarships for descendants of the survivors, funded some economic development of the Greenwood neighborhood where it took place and established a Memorial Park in the city. In short, the kind of reparations and apologies on a local level that our country has never done on a national level. Go Oklahoma!

All of this gives me hope. The above apology, the determined door-knocking and getting out to vote, the banding together, the sense that people of all previous political allegiances are finally realizing that this Emperor has no clothes and the sight ain’t pretty. In nearby Texas, there’s a groundswell of energy for Beto to beat Ted. Maybe people are getting as tired as I am of hearing about Red States and Blue States. The real State to be concerned about it is the State of Mind willing to judge on character and record rather than party allegiance, the State of our Union’s moral health, the State of our Public Discourse.

We stopped at Applebee’s to eat and I saw convivial people who returned my smile and greeting, parents with kids, young people waiting tables with intelligence shining in their eyes. It doesn’t make for good television to show these folks. Better to find some beefy guy with guns in his pick-up to accent the divide further, but hey, you can find them in San Francisco too. Not that red and blue as shown in voting aren’t true, but they’re not the whole truth and why not accent the hope of clear-thinking and good-hearted people who can be found everywhere? So this my little contribution to letting folks now that for the moment, I am uplifted by my first five hours in the state of Oklahoma. 


Time for a time-out from saving the world and the more concrete, mundane but effective practice of … packing my suitcase. I can’t stop those heartless bastards from wreaking havoc on my country, shredding any sense of human decency and fair play. But I can pack a suitcase!

It has been six weeks since I stepped into an airport and that’s just been fine, but I’m feeling that “Oh, boy! I’m going on a trip!” feeling as I get ready for the first of four trips in the next three weeks. But it’s not just the travel—it’s the work. After sitting around writing about creating a fun, connected, vibrant, helpful community of children and/or adults through the vehicle of music, now I get to do it.  Not that I haven’t done any— I’m singing weekly with the preschoolers and the folks at the Jewish Home, gave two local teacher-training workshops, had two fabulous workshops with kids at SF Jazz. But now—and soon—many to come in Oklahoma, Vancouver, New Jersey, Ohio. And without any false humility, I’m as good at this work as I am packing a suitcase. Maybe even better and certainly with more satisfying outcomes. And in addition to the writing and the letters and the petitions and the donations, it’s my primary means of “saving the world.” Not in any dramatic heroic sense, but just my little contribution to helping people live deeper into their own kindness, creativity, humor and sense of being welcomed and valued so that they might consider welcoming and valuing others.

Seat 8D and my ritual Crostic await me. More to come.