Monday, September 26, 2016

Overdue Bills

May I confess something here? I find the news about climate change terrifying. The one thing that helps us lowly mortals keep our sanity amidst the most severe trials life throws at us is the sense of continuity. Life will go on. We may not see or enjoy this particular needed change, but our children will. The present is bleak, but the future looks brighter. These are the thoughts that bring us comfort and feed our hope.

How I wish I could be like Mr. Trump and his followers and deny that climate change is real! How I would love that! I’d love to think that the sun is not more intense than it used to be, the seas are not rising, the polar ice caps are not melting. Maybe if I say it often enough and loud enough, “This is not happening!” it will go away.

On that note, I also would like to live another 50 years without aging, eat ice cream every day without getting fat, ignore the bills piling up on my desk and have the companies call me up and say, “That’s okay. You don’t need to pay them.” If only. Wouldn’t it be nice.

But denying something isn’t happening doesn’t make it go away. Climate change is real. Some say it’s too late, some say it’s not, but all say that time is running out. We have to act and we have to act fast and we have to act now. The bills are overdue and the Earth is charging exorbitant late fees. Whatever else is in your mind about casually voting this November, whether it be going with the maniac who denies the Paris Climate-Change findings, not voting or thinking it’s a good idea to vote for the third-party candidate that speaks your values, think about this before you pull down that lever. We cannot afford four more years of business as usual and/or business worse than usual. And your grandchildren will not curse you for you short-sightedness because they won’t be around. Just a bunch of cockroaches wondering what happened to all those weird two-legged animals.

Okay, now I’m doing what I hate and feeding your fear and fear makes you shut down or has you putting your hands over your ears shouting like a toddler in tantrum “LA DE DAH DE DAH! I’M NOT LISTENING!!!!!!” So hold on a moment. Deep breath. Let me start again.

Hello, friends. I just came from a gathering of folks who work with a non-profit called Corporate Accountability International. Their track record of working on behalf of justice, survival and sustainability is impressive! Almost three decades of victories convincing Nestles to stop pushing bad infant formula in third-world countries, convincing G.E. to leave the nuclear arms industry, getting Pepsi to admit their bottled water came from the tap, stopping (or slowing down) McDonald’s from addicting children to harmful fast food with their Happy Meals. And now climate change is at the top of their agenda with the first goal of removing the corporate fossil fuels industry from the decision-making process of regulations affecting climate change.

It’s a simple, effective and necessary first step and no-brainer some thirty years later than it should be. Rule Number One: If you make a product under investigation for its dangerous effects, you can not be on the committee carrying out the investigation. Duh! And once this happens, we can finally harness the considerable brain-power of the world’s scientists and start to implement the changes and regulations that will slow down climate change and buy us time to figure out ways to stop it altogether. Wouldn’t that be nice?  

These are good people doing good work. They're dedicated, organized and effective, even as they are Davids standing up to the mega-corporate Goliaths. But they need our help.So check them out, join them, send them money or all of the above. ( It's time to pay the bills.

PS Oh, and if you understand that mortality is real, too much ice cream adds pounds, bills will need to be paid, don’t forget to vote. (May I suggest Hilary as the only viable candidate who might take this all seriously?) If you’re not sure about the facts above, stay home. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Bring Back the Pledge

I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America.
And to the Republic, for which it stands.
One nation, under God, indivisible,
With Liberty and Justice for All.

Every day in my elementary school, I stood with my hand over my heart and dutifully recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I had no idea whatsoever what the words pledge, allegiance, republic or indivisible meant and only a dim notion of liberty and justice. No teacher ever bothered to explain them to me and no one seemed to think it necessary that we kids understood what we were saying. Just dutifully obey and you automatically became a patriotic citizen.

Same deal with the national anthem. What the hell is a rampart? What is a star-spangled banner? How does a twilight gleam? And why are we concerned about whether José can see? Once again, no one cared to explain it to me. Just stand up, sing the words and you’re in the club.

And now, thanks to Colin Kaepernick, the game is changing. If we’re going to say or sing the words, shouldn’t we live them as well? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to use them as the true north of our moral compass? Shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable to say what we mean and mean what we say? Wouldn’t the true patriot be the one who points out the discrepancies, holds our feet to the fire to stand by the principles the Founding Fathers set forth? Wouldn’t the folks just mouthing the words and giving silent consent to our transgressions against the things we pledged to uphold be considered unworthy citizens? You would think.

Colin has chosen to stand up and speak out by sitting down and shutting up (some delicious irony there!). And of course, all the so-called patriots are infuriated that their game is exposed. All the fans who identify with their team driven mostly (in football and basketball as least) by black athletes are happy to cheer them on to win the game, but unwillingly to notice that they could get killed by cops driving to the game if they have car trouble or reach in their pocket for their driver’s license.

We don’t recite the pledge allegiance at my school, but I’m thinking maybe we should. But only if the kids understand what their responsibility of allegiance is. Here’s how I would talk about it:

One nation: That means one that gives equal rights to every American citizen, be they Mexican, Muslim, gay, straight, black, brown, white and all the shades in-between, man, woman, poor, rich, disabled, young, old, Democrat, Republican. Any politician who promises rights and favors only to those who look like him and think like him (or her) should be removed from office—or preferably, not allowed to enter office.

Under God: Given the separation of church and state, not clear why that’s there. But if it must be, I’d clarify that God has many names. And if anyone insists that it means the Judeo-Christian version, I’d invoke numbers 6, 8 and 9 of the Ten Commandments:

            • Thou shalt not kill. Take note, policemen, when stopping a black man who is
                                               doing nothing wrong or life-threatening.
            • Thou shalt not steal. Take note, Wall Street tycoons and Wells Fargo Bank CEO’s.
            • Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor. Take note, politicians
                and Fox news, who will twist and distort facts and give voting rights to people who
                think Obama is a Muslim terrorist.

Indivisible: That means when a President is elected (like say, Barack Obama. Twice.), you work with him to serve the common needs of the same country instead of oppose his every attempt to bring people together and offer basic things like health care.

With Liberty and Justice for All: Given our history and the news of the day, we might need to add a special accent here.

Liberty and Justice  for  ALL!!!!
Native Americans should have the right to preserve the sacred burial grounds in Dakota on land that was stolen from them. Gay couples should have the rights and privileges of marriage. Muslims should have the right to religious freedom. Women should get paid the same as men doing similar work. Black men should not be afraid to drive their cars. Drug addicts should be given the same empathy and help as alcoholics and sent to rehabilitations centers instead of prisons. All people should have equal access and encouragement to vote. Children should have the right to a free public education that actually teaches them what they need to know as future citizens in ways that are nurturing, affirming of their character, attentive to their developmental needs and ways of learning, fun and effective.

Etc. It’s really pretty simple when you get down to it. If we’re going to recite the pledge of allegiance, if we are to sing songs about the “land of the free and home of the brave,” we better make sure it is free for all and be brave enough to stand up (or sit down) for it.

Let’s get to work.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Only Remembered

Though Garrison Keillor’s last Prairie Home Companion Radio Show was in July, it’s only today that I finally got to listen to it. 42 years he did this show, week after week, month after month, year after year, until it all added up to a number he decided to pay attention to and do that supremely difficult thing—say goodbye to something you do so well and love so much even while you’re still at the height of your game. That’s pretty special.

I’m big on the ceremony side of things and was wondering how his last show could do justice to the occasion, wrap up something so monumental and give it the farewell it deserved. Did it meet my expectation?

Well, first a bit of background. I wouldn’t call myself a diehard fan, but have listened to the show off and on for at least 20 years and mostly have enjoyed it. I went to two or three live shows in San Francisco, went to hear Garrison speak two or three times, read many of his books, enjoyed his poetry collections (of other poets), got to meet Fred Newman (the sound effects guy) at our school when my colleague James got him to visit and enjoyed him again at school when he gave a workshop for music teachers. (Which was excellent!) I’d hoped with Fred’s influence our kids could get on the radio show, but it never happened and hey, I’m not bitter. (Though I think it would have been great and an important nod to music education!)

In short, I greatly admire the man, his capacity to hold so much in his head and tell it with such charm and style, be it his Lake Wobegon monologues or other stories. I admire his hard work and dedication and his longevity. The 42-year mark especially resonated as it matched my wife’s retirement this June and is my current number working the same job. So I hoped the last show to wrap up in great dramatic fashion the woven threads from over four decades.

Instead, it began with what gave him pleasure, singing duets with the women vocalists he likes to sing with. But then came a phone call with Barack Obama and hey, that’s pretty significant! Both of them admiring the other and proclaiming how much they’ll miss each other as they move on in their respective fields. I had great expectations of the Lake Wobegon final story that didn’t quite deliver and then felt some genuine disappointment as his fellow long-time companions—Fred Newman, Sue Scott and others—asked him point blank how he was feeling and he tap danced around it with, “Hey, I’m from Lake Wobegon. We Lutherans are not big on feelings.”

Well, between his love of poetry and the many poignant moments he paints in the casual descriptions of “his home town,” you know the guy feels things deeply. But truth be told, I do believe he is a Minnesotan at heart and well-versed in looking at his shoes and making sure none of his heart is showing on his sleeve. And that’s okay. It’s honest and one way of dealing with emotion. But as someone (me here) who lives perpetually close to tears and wants to bring deep feeling into the room when the occasion calls for it (like at the end of every workshop I give), it’s hard for me to understand.

But then there was a little crack in the armor. After he officially closed the show, he kept on singing. A medley of “Goodbye” songs, one he wrote with direct reference to some of the highlights of the years, Goodnight Irene, Happy Trails and there were a few moments where it seemed he was singing very softly and did I detect a tiny crack in his voice? He did have a little theme going about some of his work being remembered minus his name and his coming to peace with that. He sang an old hymn called Only Remembered and this said it well:

“Only the truth that in life we have spoken, only the seed that on earth we have sown.
These shall pass onward when we are forgotten, fruits of the harvest from what we have done.

Only remembered, only remembered, only remembered by what we have done.
Thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling, only remembered by what we have done.”

Mr. Keillor, you have done so much. Created a mythical world peopled with Clarence Bunsen and Pastor Liz and women who were strong, men who were good looking and children who were all above average. You told the stories that made us smile, made us laugh, and sometimes touched us deeper than a chuckle. You brought great musicians and poets into our living rooms, got us looking forward to the next adventure of Guy Noir or Lefty and Dusty. You increased our respect for ketchup and managed to lightly sprinkle liberal politics into the shows and then pour it on a bit thicker in your excellent book Homegrown Democrat. You gave us continuity, a 42-year Mini-series without graphic violence, drugs and torrid sex, something to look forward to each week, something to depend on, something that proved to be a touchstone of reliability in a world changing much too fast. The world has indeed been made a better place by the sheer luck and hard work of you falling into something that fit you perfectly and you staying true to it year after year. I imagine there are days you’ll wake up wondering if it all really happened, was it just a dream? Days you will miss it and days you’ll be happy to sleep in a bit, not get on the plane and maybe write that existential soul-anguished poem you always meant to write. Followed by a bawdy limerick.

You closed the show finally with the one song and one word that came close to doing the closure justice. “Amen.”

Amen, indeed. Thanks for all the years. 

Oboe Delight

Every day I gather more evidence that music is one of humanity’s crowning achievements. Every day I educate children and adults as to why it’s so glorious. Every day I advocate for it’s fuller inclusion in schools. My efforts are constant, my results miniscule, but no matter. My TEDx talk on the subject has some 27,000 views over five years, the kind of attention that Trump gets in five seconds when he tweets his next ugly thought. But still I persevere!

The fully educated human being is one who has trained the body as an instrument of expression, strength and grace, cultivated an open, caring and loving heart, stimulated an active, analytic, imaginative mind. The three in conversation with each other helps nourish yet larger human faculties known as soul and spirit. Schools are—or should be—places that have this end in mind when planning each detail of the day—the schedule, the class size, the curriculum, the community values. They should ask themselves how each decision, each subject taught and the amount of time each needs and deserves, each way of presenting and assessing the material affects children and helps elevate them to their full promise. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing framework?

We would then see that P.E. (physical education) can be so much more than winning games and include yoga or martial arts or other means to fully educate the body. We would continue to celebrate math and science as means to develop the logical, rational, critical and analytic mind that actually attends to facts and the known ways things work in this world. We would make sure language arts goes far beyond the mechanics of reading and writing to open the heart to stories from all times and places that develop the capacity to empathize with characters and situations both familiar and foreign. We would make sure that poetry is fully included, ideally a poetry recited and memorized by the students as well as written by them.

Once we’re on track to include body, heart and mind, we arrive at music prepared to understand it. Music can be conveniently summarized as the conversation between three elements: Rhythm, Melody, Harmony. Each alone leads to a particular human faculty and together lights up the full territory of the brain (neuroscience confirms this, more areas involved than in any other subject) and the whole confluence of body, heart, mind, soul and spirit.

Rhythm leans toward the toe-tapping physical side of the matter, the one connected to the beating of the heart and the pulse of the breath and the rhythmic firing of nerve impulses. Melody is the thing that gets the blood flowing in the heart and awakens the feeling side of the brain. Harmony stimulates the mathematical mind, builds elaborate structures of great complexity with their own inexorable logic. So the musician and the listener stand at the crossroads of the physical, the emotional and the logical, with the emotion at the center. Harmony’s job is to further bring out the nuances of feeling in the melody, rhythm’s job is to propel it forward and dance with it.

The other two musical elements are Form and Timbre. Form is the architectural plan, the structure that houses the inhabitants and again, calls on the mathematical logical mind to plan a worthy home. Timbre is the sound of the sound, the orchestration of the many instruments that give a color to each feeling. A melody draws the emotion, but whether it’s played on a harp, bagpipe, voice, piano, flute or oboe gives the feeling a special color.

And so this blog’s title. Yesterday’s Jewish Home Musical Healing Session (ie, music) included our four wonderful Interns. Michele and Jessica danced the Charleston to the song 5 Foot Two and how everyone's eyes lit up as their bodies remembered inside the dance they used to do outside! The sound of Victoria singing Edelweiss so beautifully with Michele accompanying on guitar brought us all to a reverential hush. Jessica sang a Finnish lullaby accompanying herself with the delicate stringed instrument called the kantale and you could feel the 90-year-olds suddenly 2-years-old again in their mothers’ arms. And then Lila joined me at the piano and played classical music with me on the oboe. Heaven!

Truth be told, I’ve never played with an oboe before and know very little about it. But dang, it is a beautiful instrument! It carries legato melodies so purely, singing out over the accompaniment. It’s also pretty fun with some rousing polkas, waltzes and such. We went through a repertoire of some of the most haunting melodies I know— Bach’s Arioso, Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria and then Schubert’s, Elgar’s Salute D’Amor, Offenbach’s Barcarolle, Saint-Saen’s The Swan. Fran and Edie sat by my side entranced by the sound, shaking their heads at the end from the beauty of it all.

Thanks to Lila and her oboe, Jessica and her kantale, Michele and Victoria with their guitar and voice, Jessica's and Michele's exuberant dancing. At the end of the hour, there were fully educated human beings in that room.