Thursday, October 17, 2019

Something Sweet in Denmark

You don’t have to have a science degree to be able to explain why rotten eggs in Denmark smell bad. You trust your nose, name the source of the problem and throw the damn egg away. We humans like to explain and analyze and justify and that’s fine, but sometimes our mind can override our senses and justify things we knowjust aren’t right. “Well, maybe the egg is just olfactorally-challenged and will eventually get better.” Nope, ain’t gonna happen. 


I’ve developed a pretty good nose that I can trust to tell me when something is rotten. The 30 seconds of any time I’ve heard Trump speak is enough to make clear that he is the worst person for a job he never deserved. If you want the “blah-blah-blah” about the details, I could go on, but why bother? Face it—he stinks! Get him out of the kitchen and let’s stop wasting our breath trying to understand how or why or consider alternate viewpoints. 


On the other side of things, my nose for what smells sweet and tastes good is equally strong, cultivated by the 40,000 plus classes with kids whose main goal is create a harmonious gathering of intelligence, imagination, beauty, humor and just plain fun! I know it when it’s there, I know it when it’s not, I’ve spent my life trying to prepare the space and time to invite it in knowing that some of it is just in the hands of Grace. When it arrives, I greet it, welcome it, make it feel at home, give it voice and dance with it. 


Like today. Such a joyful class with 4thgrade, making up opposite rhymes (“I say high and you say low. I say fast and you say slow. I say yes and you say no. I say stop and you say go.”) Then exploring opposites in movement and how those kids did dance! Later in Singing Time, 100 kids singing Abram Brown in 3-part canon and then at 3-different tempos (normal, augmented, diminished) and then kids coming up front to conduct scary sounds in “Up and Down the Street.” So many perfect endings and pin-drop silences! 


Best kept secret of my life? They pay for such happiness! Of course, not much and happiness is hard, hard work, but really, sometimes I just marvel that this is—and has been—an actual adult job. And I’m thankful for every minute of it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


At the beginning of my last year back in August, I wondered whether each week would be a constant “the last time I went to the first staff meeting! The last Back-to-School Night! The last corporation potluck meeting!” And the answer luckily was, “No.” Mostly I’m teaching as if it’s just another year, with just occasional moments when I’m happy (not having to look at next year’s proposed schedule in the staff meeting) or a bit sad (watching a class of 7thgraders with an eye to who I’ll be working with next year and then thinking, ‘Oops!’). 


But driving home from school yesterday, I was listening to Oscar Peterson and an unusual (for Oscar) song came on that I remembered hearing before. It’s called “Nighttime” and it’s on his album with Itzhak Perlman called Side by Sideand also on an album Live at Salle Pleyein Paris. It immediately evoked a feeling of sweet farewell and I began writing a poem while driving. A first draft is below and tonight I read it out loud with the music playing and it seems they need to go together. So if you’re interested and you can find that song, try reading it out loud. I’m a long 9 months from actual retirement, but when the Muse calls, you would do well to respond, regardless of the timetable. Here it is: 


It is the nighttime of my many, many years in this place I have loved so long

The sun is setting

The moon is rising.

The day’s stories have all been told

And behold, they are good. 

The fire is lit with the warmth of memory. 

I see the long parade of beautiful children now grown

And leading the next ones forward, King Glory

going up the mountain. 

Where the first one, the second one, the third 

           followed me. 

But now will follow me no more. 

Now, someone else will be walking them through the promised land.

That glorious place where we traveled along, singing songs side by side, 

Where we stumbled and fell, lost our way, huddled together in the cold, 

circled together in joy and danced our way to happiness.

Behind me now, the bread crumbs of those lived years 

are messages to the future, 

beckoning others to make the long climb to unending beauty, 

bubbling laughter,               shouted exultation. 

Here, paused on the peak, the sky is orange with the day’s close.

The owl and the whippoorwill fill the air with song 

while the morning birds turn to sleep. 

Tomorrow a new day will dawn.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Hail Columbus?

“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. Columbus later wrote of this in his log:

“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawk’s bells. They willing traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it be the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

So opens Howard Zinn’s  A People’s History of the United States.Columbus comes to the New World (the Old Word to the native inhabitants) and brings with him his culture of dominance, of greed, of conquering people and nature over living harmoniously with people and nature. And this begins the history of our dear country that leads unapologetically to the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the insatiable appetite for money and power that leads to the exploitation of workers from robber baron bosses and always the inequality between men and women. 

What kind of human being responds to the generous welcome of a host culture with “with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want?” 

And that is exactly what old Chris did. Came back and in 1495, “rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships” to go to Spain to be sold as slaved. OF course, with God on his side. He wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Meanwhile, his lust for gold had him order all Arawaks 14 years old and older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. …Within two years, through murder, mutilation or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. By 1550, there were only 500 left and by 1650, there were none. 

So, my friends, that’s who we’re celebrating today. A man lusting for gold, intent on enslaving human beings and sure that God was on his side as he set out to extinguish a race of fellow people. Isn’t that a lovely lesson for the children. 

If we’re going to take time off from business as usual today, let’s at least tell the real story—to ourselves and to the children. And then look sharply at ourselves and see it all at work still today. Read George Conway’s article about our President who is a certified sociopath, psychopath and pathological narcissist incapable of empathy and drawn by his lust for gold and power. And have a moment of silence for the original Arawaks and all the millions of other people brutalized by these kinds of cultural permissions. 

Happy Columbus Day?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

How to Ruin a Day in the Park

1)   Let the Blue Angels Navy planes roar and scream overhead frightening little children, birds and generally disturbing the peace.

2)   Get me thinking about the arrogance, ignorance and disrespect of a nation that hasn’t been invaded for centuries (except for 9/11) thinking it’s fun to have planes screeching across the sky when for many countries, that would mean the very real danger and traumatic memory of bombs dropping and neighbors dying. (And often those bomb-carrying planes from the U.S.!)

3)   Get me thinking up all the fossil fuel wasted for this kind of spectacle entertainment. 

4)   Get me wondering why my beloved San Francisco, the most liberal place in the country, still hosts a Navy Fleet Week that includes this disturbing display. 

I get that there is some bizarre and almost perverse kind of artistry as the four planes fly in a choreographed display, but why not try it with gliders? The whole macho “watch me penetrate the sky with my massive powerful organ” is precisely what the world needs to be done with. 

And so my hope to sit by the lily-pad pond in the Arboretum and honor the Sabbath with some quiet reflection was bombarded from above. Thanks for nothing, Fleet Week. 

Child Poets

It has been such a joy to explore haiku in my 4thgrade music classes. A few posts ago, I shared “My Life in Haiku” and now get ready for more! These from the children (though three from me), written during a class when I sent them out in the school yard to sit quietly and see if a poem came their way. To use their senses, noticing what they hear, they see, they smell, they feel and in one example below, what they taste. To try out the challenge of the 5-7-5 syllabic structure, to consider a seasonal reference, to bring their poem home with a punch line. (All of which you can find in this first example below.)

The kids have fallen in love with haiku. One bought a book of Basho’s poetry and journals (a 4thgrader!), all effortlessly turned inward to some silent space within when we sat on the benches on Pier 23 in our city walk to write yet more haiku. How their tender souls need this kind of silence and space! How we all do! Mindfulness is gaining traction in schools and this is a good thing, but like so much of the way we Americans do things, it is a “thing.” The cool thing du jour to do and yes, better that than a thousand other things it could be. To hear the peace bell and habitually stop and breathe. Lovely!

But this haiku tradition offers yet more. First off, it’s a centuries-old practice and that means it has weight and history and many ancestors to draw from. Secondly, it demands the mindful moment but also invites artistic expression, the art of capturing the flavor of the moment in the net of language and then sharing back with the group. And paying mind to a mathematical structure. Soon we will also try re-writing in a Chinese/ Japanese brush-painting style and illustrating with watercolors. And they’ve already enacted some in drama and accompanied with percussion instruments. Integrated arts, people!!

At any rate, here are some first-drafts from our class at the school. It might help to know that the school looks over the 280 freeway, so the many references to the roaring river of traffic is better understood if you know that. Enjoy!

The warm breeze of Spring
The cold breeze of the Autumn
Two seasons at once.

Pigeons in the air
All the trees with fluttering leaves 
It is quiet now.

Whoosh! The wind swarming
Vrooom! The cars on the highway
Ha! The children laugh.

Leaves crunching underfoot
The fresh smell of pumpkin
A leaf falls to the ground. 

The hot summer
Nothing but heat, the cold glass of water
Quenching my thirst.
-       Sasha

There is not one cloud
The Autumn wind blows the trees
Yet I sit so still.
-       Vedant

Trees swaying in wind
Growing bigger every year
Standing tall. Like us!

A blade of grass
Tastes bland and bitter
The texture is strange.

-       Lily

Birds chirp in the trees
They rustle the leaves and sing
Tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet. 

-       Nola

The sky is blue
The leaves are green.
Yellow is the sun.

The grumbling highway
Yet we are in Nature’s peace
Trees swaying back and forth.
-       Jane

The wind is blowing
Rustling the leaves on the trees
Fall is the best time.
-       Julien

Smell the smell of
Smoke coming from the cars out there
Bye, Antarctica!        

The roar of traffic
The children’s screaming voices
Drown out the bees’ buzz.
-       Doug

Hot in the bright sun.
Then cool in the leafy shade.
Which one should I choose?

-       Doug

Pen and paper poised
Two flies land on the table
Waiting for my poem.
-       Doug


Friday, October 11, 2019

It's Music!


Here’s a confession: I miss writing these blogposts! But somehow things have intensified and there doesn’t seem to be time or space. I could write about giving my San Francisco tour to the 4thgrade (fun!!) or sharing the next breathtaking passage in my Dickens book (there are many!) or telling the story of my next confusing betrayal (ooh! Juicy!) or tell the story of our new TV (high drama!), but hey, I’m giving the first of my workshop series tomorrow, the ones I’ve been doing since 1976, so I better pass on it all. 

Instead, I’ll feature a 4thgrade guest writer who spontaneously wrote a poem and gave it to his teacher, who passed it on to me. The kids are afire with poetry and that’s an entry in itself. Meanwhile, check this out:


It seeps through the heart with a mighty ring,
Makes cats purr and choirs sing.
It makes happiness jump wherever it goes,
Makes boys and girls swing to and fro.

It’s in every song,
And many dances.
It’s best by itself with no enhances.
It’s music to your ears,
It’s music to mine,
It makes people smile,
And makes their sun shine.

If you don’t have it, you might lose it,
It’s music I say,
It’s music,
It’s music!

-Aristu Sachdev

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Dead White Men

I’m a huge advocate of expanding the base of who is worthy to inspire the better parts of ourselves. For a long time, I’ve been a fan of poets Basho, Rumi, Hafiz, Mirabel, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, novelists Zora Neale Hurston, Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Khaled Hosseini, Lisa See and more. Then there’s the long list of African-American jazz musicians—Louis, Duke, Ella, Billie, Bird, Diz, Monk, etc.— and scores of West African, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Cuban, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese musicians whose names are not known in the West. Not to mention Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and the like. 

But to be perfectly honest, most of the deeply influential artists and thinkers in my life who continue to refresh me come from that now unpopular lineage of Dead White Men. Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Dickens, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Bill Evans, Joseph Campbell and the still-living Keith Jarrett and Gary Snyder. Almost daily, my fingers rove through the prodigious intellect and imagination of Bach and elevate me to a higher plane. And most every Fall my whole adult life, I’ve read and re-read and re-read again a Charles Dickens novel. 

But I seem to have taken a break these last three or four years, so decided to dive back in with Nicholas Nickleby. Having just finished A Man Called Ove with author Fredrik Backman’s sparse, simple and effective prose, it was a bit of a transition to get back into the opaque, long sentences of Dickens. But once in the groove, the rewards were—and are— many. Sentences that just make me sit up in admiration and wonder. Little things like: 

“Mr. Squeers appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two. …”

Brilliant! And then there is this passage revealing both everything I’ve tried to correct in our view of music and affirm in its power. A group of strangers are thrown together by a carriage accident and awaiting rescue. One turns to another passenger and asks if he can sing.

“I cannot indeed,” replied the gentleman.
“That’s a pity,” said the owner of the good-humored countenance. “Is there nobody here who can sing a song to lighten the time?”
 The passengers one and all protested that they could not; that they wished they could, that
they couldn’t remember the words of anything without the book…

The passengers asked the man who brought it up to sing and he replied:

“I would if I could,” said he of the good-tempered face, “for I hold that in this, as in all other cases where people who are strangers to each other are thrown unexpectedly together, they should endeavor to render themselves as pleasant for the joint sake of the little community as possible.”

There you have it. People already in the 1800’s limited by their book-dependence, unmindful of their musical heritage, but aware of music’s power to bring together a little community and pass the time in a most pleasant way. How did Dickens know what my life’s mission was to be?