Wednesday, September 23, 2020

We Could Use a Planet

Here’s a happy confession to make—retired life suits me well. Of course, I’m still teaching, but instead of 7 classes a day with kids of all ages, I’m doing Zoom workshops with teachers (hopefully live in the not-too-distant future) and that feels gratifying that my life’s work can still be useful to people in my field. I can live without it, but the happiness it brings me and others, that sense of connecting people to the roots of their passion and in the live workshop, to each other so that after five minutes, a room of strangers feel like old friends—well, that is a gold I’m not willing to just store away in a vault. May it continue!


But equally pleasurable is the time to pursue the neglected parts of my possibilities. The six weeks with the grandchildren this summer. A bit more time at the piano, now shifting from Bach to jazz as I prepare for an upcoming concert. More daily exercise than I’ve had in my life, not the grunting-at-the-gym type, but combining increased muscle tone with the supreme pleasure of walking and/or biking around my fair city, exploring neighborhoods, sitting under trees in parks. More attention to cooking and dipping back to old recipes (vegetable pancakes from the Tassajara Breadbook holds up!). Reading one book, listening to another on Audible, keeping poetry close by. And always writing— soon the next book, now an article or two and always these Blogposts. 


Most exciting, time to try new things,  like the claw hammer banjo class where I'm finally learning a technique that has eluded me when I casually tried it before. After three classes, I’m actually improving! And herein lies music’s great lesson. That we will improve in the things we spend time with, consciously attend to, daily practice is as close a dependable truth as any I know.

And so I look ahead to things like snare drum technique, conga classes and when the COVID air clears, resuming bagpipe lessons and actually practicing this time around (though not clear where). Maybe take a poetry class or finally learn Portuguese or even consider classical piano lessons with a teacher who won’t let me get away with skipping over the hard parts. 


In short, the world is large, our knowledge and skills are small and time exists so that we can grow bigger in all sorts of ways. Improve a bit in relationships as well as concrete tasks. Grow a little bit kinder, a bit more grateful, a bit more able to forgive, a bit more capable of blessing both ourselves and others. Mortality’s ticking clock is a reminder to get to work and take advantage of body parts that still work, mental parts that can still remember and think clearly— while we have them. 


But we also need air we can breathe. We need hugs we can give and receive without fear of deadly disease. We need shelter that is not engulfed in flames or washed away in storms. We need a functioning planet to stand on so we can do this work. 


And so amidst the daily pleasures of my habits of hopeful improvement, I need to attend to phone calls, texts and postcards to all those head-in-sand folks who don’t see the enormous threat this administration is to the health of the planet. They’ve proved it with the dysfunctional COVID response, the denial of climate change, the fanning of hate and the celebration of ignorance. We cannot afford another four years. Seriously. We need a planet to continue this work. None of our efforts at either self-improvement, social improvement or species-improvement can bear fruit if there’s no planet to sink our roots in. 


And so I call on all the helping hands, in this world and the others, to pick up the pen or the phones, all listening ears to hear this, all functioning minds to consider how much is at stake. No point in working on my banjo if I can't be here to play it. Let’s go!




Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Life By the Numbers

I’ve always thought of myself more as a humanities or arts-inclined person, but it is numbers that can make or break my day. As in:


• What number is the Air-Quality Index today?

• How many new COVID cases? How many deaths?

• What do the polls say now?


And on it goes. What is the temperature? How much money is in my bank account? How many steps does my heart ap tell me I walked today? How many miles biked? What time is my next Zoom call? How many gigabytes of storage are left on my computer? 


When I swim in Lake Michigan, I count my strokes (1600 my record).  When I feel near the end of my morning mediation, I count my breaths (usually 10 more). When I’m bored on a long plane ride (well, not any time recently), I count the number of countries I’ve visited (somewhere around 60). When I play paddleball with someone, we count the number of hits (new world record of 662 with Talia and I!). How many more minutes can I procrastinate before getting out for my daily bike ride?


As many minutes as I hope would match today’s Air Quality Index, Covid cases and percentage of people planning to vote for the monster (hint: starts with T). 


And with that as motivation, I’m off!



The Four Slaveries

“Slavery and enslavement are the state and condition of being a slave, who cannot quit their service to another person and is treated like property. In chattel slavery, the enslaved person is legally rendered the personal property (chattel) of the slave owner.”


In my Jazz History course last night, I said that Scott Joplin was born in 1868, three years after the end of slavery. And then corrected myself. “Three years after the end of the first American slavery.”


May I suggest we begin speaking this way? Call the subsequent purposefully-crafted laws and practices crafted by those who could not accept the end of the first by it's true name—slavery.  I think it would be more fitting to talk about the Four Slaveries, the last of which we’re still in.


The first slavery, according to the definition above from Wikipedia, could properly be called chattel slavery and lasted in the U.S. from 1619 to 1863 (Emancipation Proclamation) or 1865 (the end of the Civil War) depending on how you see it. 


The second slavery was called The Black Codes, a series of laws designed to keep blacks at the mercy of whites and often continuing to work for little or no wages. These were immediately enacted in Southern states after the Civil War and included excluding blacks from the work force, then arresting them for vagrancy. A white boss would pay the fine to get them out of jail and then force the black prisoner to work for free to pay off the debt. (You can read the sordid details in the book “Slavery By Another Name.”) 


The third slavery was the era (and error) of Jim Crow. Overlapping with and drawing from the Black Codes and officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court ruling in 1896 of Plessy vs. Ferguson, “separate but equal” was another strategy to keep black folks “in their place,” which meant without access to the liberties, rights and privileges promised in the Constitution that white folks enjoyed. While not technically slavery in the definition above, it continued the practice of black servitude as the available jobs were often maid, butler, railway porter, factory worker, etc. at lower-than-normal wages. Access to voting, quality education, housing, benefits of things like the G.I. Bill after fighting in the war was limited and always separate, but unequal. This era technically ended with the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


The fourth slavery was the ear of the school to prison pipeline begun by Nixon, continued by Reagan and given another boost by Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. This was a purposeful attempt to make a felony out of drug offenses and imprison a high percentage of black males, who then would work for pennies for companies like Victoria Secret, not be allowed to vote because of their felony status and have limited job opportunities when released. (See the book “The New Jim Crow.”) This is where we are now.


And so every time the government leaned toward doing the right thing, there was another faction who simply shifted the oppression and then legally sanctioned it. During the 12 years of Reconstruction, blacks could vote and there were black senators at both the local and national level. But when Rutherford B. Hayes struck a deal with Southern senators in a contested election to removed the Federal troops from the South, that whole forward progress collapsed, the Ku Klux Klan rose with a vengeance and the Black Codes continued in full force. 


When there was heroic resistance from people like Ida B. Wells and Homer Plessy, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to promote a more just and integrated society and instead chose the Jim Crow path that would cause havoc for the next 70 years. After pressure from the heroism of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and thousands and thousands of people marching for justice in the 60’s, Johnson finally signed the bills once again affirming the rights the 13th, 14thand 15thAmendments 100 years earlier had promised. To be followed by Nixon and his cronies' nefarious plan to hide their real intentions to disenfranchise black (and radical white) voters with their deliberately crafted “War on Drugs,” a euphemism for the next chapter of slavery. And throughout it all, an ignorant public letting it pass while convincing themselves that race was no longer an issue. 


And so yesterday, Trump praised his almost all-white audience for “their good genes” and last week, NFL players joined in solidarity for Black Lives Matter were booed. Here we are, black folks still enslaved by the unquestioned and unhealed deliberate laws, practices and attitudes we’ve inherited and white folks enslaved in a different way, our way of thinking and non-thinking showing that “we cannot quit our service to another person,” that we are the property of the wrong-headed and wrong-hearted thinking of our ancestors. But unlike the real slavery that black folks have suffered, there is no obstacle keeping us bound to these masters other than our own choice to remain ignorant. 


We might begin by investigating these histories above and then changing the way we talk about slavery, as suggested above. 


Just a thought.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Light Money

I keep reading about all this “dark money” coming in from the billionaires supporting these despicable Republicans threatening democracy and our very future. But what about “light money” coming in to the Democrats from rich celebrities— athletes, movie stars, pop stars and such? Are these folks giving back and supporting the candidates that actually care about Democracy? 


Better yet, what if there was a celebrity phone bank and fans nationwide would get personal calls like "Hello, this is Steph Curry/ Meryl Streep/ Oprah/ Bill Gates/ Shakira/ etc. Do you have a minute to talk?" I imagine our star-struck population might perk-up a bit more than listening to me on the phone bank. And the Democratic campaign would benefit a bit more than my constant trickle of $25-$50 donations. 


I hate it that money is running the election of leaders, but if it be so, well, come on rich liberals! Turn over your earnings from that last block-buster movie, pop concert, championship football game, what-have-you and help turn this thing around. And not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it benefits you as well. Consider that the incompetent leadership around COVID is a big part of the reason why no fans are in the stands, no live concerts are happening, no movie theaters are open, etc. 


I know you all are reading my blog, so I expect to see big changes tomorrow. 



Sunday, September 20, 2020


SHAME: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. 


New Age psychology names shame as a negative emotion and motivational speakers gather crowds at high prices to excuse them from it. And indeed, there are many kinds of imposed shame that cripple us and keep us from moving forward, particularly when it comes from a place of privilege, people trying to make us feel ashamed for being gay or poor or bad in math. But genuine shame from within, a sense that we made the wrong choice, that “we blew it,” that is was “our bad,” followed by an apology to those we hurt and to our own better selves—that kind of shame indeed has its place in the ecology of human emotion.


Just the right amount of shame keeps us honest, keeps us humble, keeps us human. “Humiliation” is the doorway to an authentic humility, an awareness that we are less than perfect and are bound to make mistakes without end. The acceptance of our own vulnerability keeps our hearts open and to feel the pain when we transgress is what allows them to stay honestly open. 


But what can we say of people who feel no shame? Of the psychopathic serial killer or the Ponzi scheme Wall Streeter or the abusive spouse-beater? Well, we’re fascinated by them and they make good characters in movies. But none of us wants them as a friend or neighbor or even golf problem.


And what if two people like that incapable of shame are the President of the United States and the Majority Leader of the Senate? Welcome to the Twilight Zone of American democracy.

I was open to surprise, a tiny sliver of possibility that those last two above would do the right thing—or at least wait a respectable amount of time. But no, while the body was still warm, they were already making their plans to use the occasion for their own political gains. Which means, not attending to the common good of the people they are elected to represent—which means all citizens—but carrying on their relentless and shameless campaign of grabbing more than their share of privilege and the world’s goods. Without a moment of respect for the death of one who will be in our history’s Supreme Court of courageous, moral, dedicated, intelligent and good-hearted heroines and heroes—I speak, of course, of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg— they predictably forged ahead with their plans. 


What those two monsters, those giants with no hearts in their bodies (read that fairy tale), the Party that supports them, the voters that chose them (and unbelievably, are poised to choose them again) have done makes me ashamed to be an American citizen. Makes me ashamed of being a member of the human species. The utter lack of awareness that it might be wrong to meet the occasion of not only the death of a fellow human being with such crass behavior, but someone who served the country for so many years (until her dying day!) and championed the justice the country is supposed to stand for, should be the occasion for their shame, but it is a shame they are incapable of feeling. And so we have to carry the shame of putting such crippled, heartless people in positions of power.

And I do.


R.I.P., R.B.G. We will work tirelessly on your behalf.

Friday, September 18, 2020

First Signs of Return

                                           “We shall not cease from exploration

                                            And the end of all our exploring

                                            Will be to arrive where we started

                                           And know the place for the first time.”


                                                            -T.S. Eliot (Little Gidding from 4 Quartets)


We celebrated my sister’s birthday by the simple act of walking to the ocean on Tennessee Valley Trail in Marin County. In so doing, three things happened that I haven’t experienced in six months:


1) There was a traffic jam getting to the Golden Gate Bridge and coming back over it.


2) We ate in a restaurant.


3) We came back home to our house after dark.


The first was not a happy sign of life edging back to pre-pandemic normal (in these two cases, it was road work). That tension of being late for something and creeping bumper-to-bumper. Well, no one misses that.


The restaurant was full outside, but very spacious and with high-ceilings inside. However, with 5 TV’s blaring, way over-priced food that I could have cooked better at home, it didn’t make me too anxious to get back to eating out a lot.


Coming home in the dark was fine, simply a reminder that any night life we used to have—meetings with friends, out to and back from the movies or a lecture or a jazz concert—simply hasn’t happened. We’re okay without it, but I do look forward to some of it coming back. Especially since I don’t have to awaken at any particular time the next morning to go to school!


So there it is. Not quite as profound as the way Eliot meant it, but the first signs that we can return to some things with renewed appreciation and consider letting things go that we haven’t missed. Both individually and collectively. 


Meanwhile, the so-welcome news that air quality in Portland is down to 91, in San Francisco to 8. If we can get the Hate and Ignorance Quality-Index down that far, things will start to look up. 



Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Thumbnail History of American Slavery

Preparing for my second Jazz History Online class, I found something I wrote for the 8thgraders many years ago. With a little bit of revision, it seems worthy to post here. No new startling insights or facts, but the fact that so many of them are new for white folks reading them is the first symptom of the depth and breadth of our national sickness. The more people finally get to know these things, allow themselves to care about them, begin to educate others and take action, the more hope is kindled in a world desperate for hope.


Feel free to pass on to others, as this conversation that we keep not having feels more important than ever to have. Especially before November.


It all began when Western Europe—particularly England, France, Portugal and Spain—developed the technology to travel by ship to lands as far away as West Africa. They carried with them four things that helped them dominate much of the world in the centuries that followed:


1)    1) The fabricated story of a God who favored them and disparaged others.

2)   2)  The desire to accumulate material wealth.

3)    3) The guns, germs and steel to help them conquer people who outnumbered them. 

4)   4)  A literate tradition that gave certain powers difficult to attain in oral cultures.


The first narrative was the engine that drove the others, justified, them, excused them, made them acceptable as the norm endorsed by the “Christian god of brotherly love.” Indeed, the highest Christian authority in that historical period, Pope Nicholas V, said this in 1452:


“We grant you, King of Portugal, by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other property and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery. “


And that is exactly what they did. When they first arrived on the west coast of Africa in the 15thcentury—what is now Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, Angola and other countries— they encountered tribal cultures that already had a type of slavery in place from people captured in the local wars. This made trading goods for people a possibility and by 1472, the Portuguese negotiated their first slave-trading agreement with a king’s court. Thus began one of the most inhuman economic systems the world had ever known—the slave trade to the New World.


Backed by the worldviews mentioned above, the European explorers began a long and deliberate process of taking the land and resources of the native populations in what is now North and South America by any means necessary. This included intentional genocide and unintentional epidemics. But once they had the land, they quickly realized they had neither the skills nor labor to effectively survive. Thus started the notion of making others work for free, justified by the narrative that they were inferior beings who were lucky to be given the opportunity. The Native Americans were decimated by disease, the poor whites did not work well, but the African slaves had the strength and stamina to survive. 

Thus, the roots of racism were economic.Once the system started, the difference in look and temperament between Europeans and Africans allowed the white slave-masters to invent “scientific” theories of racial superiority/inferiority, Biblical decrees that God felt the same way and ignorant ideas about African cultures as “primitive” and “savage.” The scientists went along, the priests and ministers went along, the school teachers went along, the lawyers went along, the politicians went along and because these groups held the political power, they created a blatantly false dominant narrative that people to this day still believe when it’s convenient for them to do so—ie, when it gives them the feeling of a special privilege that they neither earned nor deserve or benefits them economically.


The world had always known slavery and as mentioned, it also existed in West Africa when the Europeans first arrived. But several things made this particular incarnation of slavery markedly different. Amongst them:


1)   1)  Losing every aspect of identity—name, language, clothing, family, religion, ethnic group, music, even their status as a full human being (the 3/5th’s rule).


2)  2)   Lifetime contract that automatically was passed on to children and grandchildren. 


3)  3) The sheer number of enslaved people stolen from Africa— over 4 million in the United States alone, 12 million including the Caribbean and South America.


4)   4)  The astounding length of time—from 1619 to 1865 in the U.S. and continuing today in different forms (see number 8 below).


5)   5)  Brutality and inhuman treatment—beatings, whippings, rape, murder (later lynchings and police murders of innocent black folks) with full support from the government and no accountability.


6)    6) Boasting of economic prosperity that came entirely from the labor of others.


7)   7)  Ongoing story of the honor of the Southern way of life and the genteel well-mannered plantation culture. 


8) Purposefully created and government-sanctioned ways to continue new forms of slavery that exist to this day—the Black Codes, Jim Crow, the school to prison pipeline, etc. 


How can we understand the forces that led to the centuries of subjugation of one group of people over another? What was wrong with a culture that valued conquest over community? That taught their children to hate those that appear different? That needed to feel superior by virtue of a skin color without the need to do something worthy or prove to be of high character? That was confused and conflicted when faced with the moral, artistic, intellectual and physical accomplishments of those purported to be inferior? That was not capable of the actual labor to produce wealth, but boasted of it as if they achieved it through their own efforts? That allowed them to imagine themselves upright citizens and dutiful Christians while beating, raping and killing other people? That to this day continues excusing the police killings of so many (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and hundreds more) without consequence for the murderers? That has citizens voting for a President who recently publicly threatened schools with defunding if they taught the real history of slavery?


At this writing, the world is suffering from some six months of quarantine, held captive by a virus and all are wondering, “How long can this go on?! Six whole months without going to a bar or getting a haircut or teaching my class away form a screen or seeing my grandchildren?! Unbearable!”


Now compare that to some 600 hundred years (!) of large populations of fellow human beings held captive by a narrative that gives others permission to denigrate them, limit their choices, imprison them, enslave them, rape them, murder them, all in a land that publicly professes “all men are created equal” and school children pledge “liberty and justice for all,” all under a religion whose founder proclaimed “love thy neighbor as thyself.” All of us held captive by an ideological virus that we created and each time we had the opportunity to vaccinate ourselves through education, love or just plain human decency, we created a new strain of the virus to keep the narrative going. And still today it goes on unchecked.


“Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” said the famous philosopher Anonymous and that is as true for social justice as it is for climate change and pandemics. If each of us took it upon ourselves to educate ourselves (a thousand resources out there, many available at a click on the keyboard!) to educate the children, to educate our stubborn brother-in-law, hope could become a verb with muscle. 

And after such education, then vote. 

And after such education, then vote.