Thursday, February 20, 2020


“To be is to do.” – Plato

“To do is to be.” – Sartre

“Do-be-do-be-do.” – Frank Sinatra

This graffiti I saw in the Antioch College bathroom a half-century or so ago. It’s a good description of my last few days with unexpected time off at home.

On the doing side, I decided to take care of those nagging details I keep putting off. Went to the dentist, to the Social Security office, starting working on my taxes and such.

On the being side, I sat in the park under the plum blossoms and inhaled a bit of the approaching Spring.

And then I played songs Sinatra sang on the piano. 

Three for three!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Happiness or Happeness?

I gave myself a Buddhist lecture today, trying to remind myself what Mary Oliver has also suggested— “you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” Or for your happiness, I would add. 

The Buddhist idea is to wholly, utterly, completely, accept the world as it is. Or more accurately, to detach oneself from the rise and fall of both your own desires and the world’s ebb and flow. To practice non-attachment is to float over the muddy waters of world like the flowering lotus. 

And yet, aren’t we creatures of desire? Don’t we navigate through the day-to-day filled with wishes, hopes, dreams, intentions, visions of the world as we want it to be? And when those hopes include creating a more just world, bringing some healing and happiness to ourselves and others, adding beauty to a world already beautiful but also made ugly by our failures, aren’t those worthy hopes and desires? 

And yet. When we want—and expect—the world to behave according to our wishes, be they small and petty or large and glorious, aren’t we bound to be disappointed? Won’t we suffer when the world goes off our script? Yes, we will and yes, we do. I think of my own disappointments in myself and then go on to the way some others treat me and then it magnifies yet again when I feel the ups and downs of my children, my colleagues, my friends, their hurts, their illnesses, their blows from the random chaos of life. And yet again when one opens to compassion and reads the newspaper. From the personal to the political news of the day, there is a constant volley of suffering raining down on us, from the lethal virus in China to the Democracy-killing virus in the Senate to the next ignorant decision that diminishes the quality of life. Really, how do we even manage to stand up each day? 

All these things that either randomly or purposefully (sometimes with ill-intent) happen are simply out of my control. I can stand up and speak out and offer advice and offer a listening ear, but I can’t do a damn thing about most of it. So one way to balance it all is to re-focus on the things that I can do. I can sit in morning meditation and be content with just breath, I can ride my bike and use less gas while getting exercise, I can keep working on the piano until the notes flow with some sense of beauty, I can eat less, I can sit and watch the motion of the water on the bay or hug a tree or stand outside at night looking at the stars. But if I do all of that expecting a result, I’m back on the karmic wheel of disappointment or fulfillment. If I’m out in nature and wishing that cold breeze would stop so I could relax and appreciate the scene, I’m asking the world again to bend to my wishes. It’s maddeningly difficult to simply accept what comes before us wholeheartedly. 

So I finally came up with this sentence:

“Don’t base your happiness on what happens. Happiness is simply the natural overflow of resting wholly in the center of your nature. Don’t confuse it with “happeness.” That’s when you’re overjoyed because the Warriors won another championship or you got a lot of likes on Facebook or you got a cool workshop invitation. Fine to feel some pleasure in all of that, but watch out! Soon you expect World to keep winning all the games you want won and then you become attached to a particular outcome and back you are at square one— life is suffering. In short: Happiness, not happeness.”

End of today’s Buddhist lecture.

PS: Makes me SO HAPPY that I came up with that cool idea!!!! I hope I get another one tomorrow!

Monday, February 17, 2020

No Cell-Phone-Free-Zone

It’s no news that cell phones are both heaven’s gift and the Devil’s instrument. The wholesale invasion of human attention and interaction, reducing it all to heads-down on tiny, private, self-enclosed screens, is now simply the new norm. I’ve done my best—and perhaps better than most— to not walk and talk through the streets, not check it in public every chance I get, to still bring books on buses and such and even occasionally, just sit and notice and observe and sometimes (gasp!) talk to strangers! 

But last night, the phone appeared in a here-to-fore sacred spot—my dreams. Still struggling with jet lag— slept 11pm to 5am the first night, 11 pm to 10 am (!) the second and last night, 11 pm to 3:30 am, up for 90 minutes, back to sleep at 5:00 am and that’s when I left to go to school by bus (in my dreams)  and then realized it was 9:15am and my first class started at 9. So opted for the car and on the way to school, tried to call while stuck in weird traffic on a new unfamiliar route and couldn’t get to my normal screen on my phone. Found a way to put in the number (which miraculously, I got right digit-wise) but no way to send the call and kept fumbling with buttons to try to get the screen back to the way I know it. Luckily, I woke up (8:15 am) so the 8thgrade didn’t miss their music class after all and my phone still worked as I’m used to it working.

So there you have it. Jet-lag sucks and phones are now officially everywhere. That’s my message to start the day.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Sometimes things just go smoothly, like a jazz band being gifted with a particularly swingin’ groove when every note holds in place. Like yesterday. The Singapore hotel graciously agreed to extend check-out time to 6 pm, allowing me the full day to swim, wander and pack. My generous host, Paul Grosse, rode to the airport with me in the taxi and we had a most lovely and delicious dinner at an airport restaurant so tastefully decorated with equally tasty variations of prawns and tofu over red rice. Checked in my bags without waiting in line, went straight to the gate and through another line-less security, checked in at the desk to see if I may have been called for the Business Class upgrade. Earlier that day, I found out there were 9 seats available and I was number 8 on the waiting list. The woman checked and said that now I was number 1 on the waiting list, meaning the other seats had been filled, but if one person failed to show, up I went.

That seemed like a hiccup in my flawless day, but fact is that though the upgrade never happened, my window Economy Plus seat next to a short woman with narrow shoulders ended up being just fine and I didn’t have to use up my miles or pay the additional proposed fee. Instead of a 14-hour grueling survival test, I simply had a triple-feature movie and lucked out on three great films interrupted by some okay sleep. 

The first was House with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler and it was a typical American zany over-the-top comedy, but hey, with those two, you can’t go too wrong and it didn’t. Next was Late Night with Emma Thompson and that was truly excellent, a little reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada with a successful not-too-nice woman at the top slowly transforming into her fuller humanity. But with 3 hours left in the flight, the last took the prize. 

Yesterday is the name of the movie about the musician singing all the Beatles songs in a world in which the memory of the Beatles is mysteriously erased. It was a lovely reminder of how poor the world—and also my world, as they appeared on Ed Sullivan in 7thgrade just when this then-adolescent was entering the world of rock music, and became a major part of the soundtrack of my adolescence and college years—would have been without the Beatles. The variety, poetry and simply great tunes were stunning when looked at from this film’s unique perspective.

And probably my favorite part was after the musician goes through the dog-and-pony show of the mega-spectacle with millions buying “his” music and thousands attending his concerts, he reaches the true apex at the end by singing with kids in a school. That sincerely warmed this music teacher’s heart. (I, of course, opted out of the rock star period. Ha ha!)

To complete the smooth flow of the day, my flight actually left on time (!), arrived early, 8 people ahead of me in the immigration line, walked to baggage claim just as my bags came out, walked to BART a minute before the train left, walked out of BART and waiting 30 seconds before my wife met me to pick me up and had time and energy to thoroughly unpack, re-settle and sleep through most of the night (he says writing this at a 5am jet-lagged morning). And most important, it seems like I’m virus-free. 

Today then is my reunion with the piano, with my bicycle, with shopping and cooking, with the colder weather (San Francisco’s 47 degrees instead of Singapore’s 74), the details of homecoming. Tomorrow is digging into a book project with two weeks of unexpected time ahead. Grateful for it all.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is also the name of a great Italian film. Maybe I’ll watch it on my next 14-hour flight.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Sauntering Around Singapore

Tonight I have the dubious pleasure of spending 14-plus hours in an airplane seat, so I thought it best to get this body moving today. Began with a swim in the hotel pool and then off for an aimless saunter through Singapore, heading down to the Marina where the Singapore Flyer and strange gardens and such are. My New Orleans hat on my head, my Cuban shirt on my back, my Michigan shorts, Spanish sandals, all my various selves joined together. (I usually bring my "man’s purse" that traveled around the world with me in 1978 and still is my companion. But today I thought about traveling lighter and seeing what it might be like to go off without a book or Crostic puzzle and such. Just walk and think my own strange thoughts. It was enough. 

The sun was out more than my skin would have liked, but in-between bouts of genuine summer heat, there were some cool breezes. As happens when we travel, certain sights spark off memories of other travels. Some things reminded me of the Sydney Opera House, some of Spain (the heat), some snippets of San Francisco at the water’s edge, some sense of Salzburg feeling the echo of satisfying teaching. The convergence of Singapore, Sydney, San Francisco, Salzburg, Spain both a tangible trip through triumphant travels and a pleasing alliterative connection. 

Singapore is immaculately manicured and though it’s partly because of its Disneyland-like artificial simulation (man-made sculptures imitating trees), it sure is a refreshing change from the constant garbage on the street in San Francisco. And today on the way back, I took my third foray into the underground MRT that rivals Tokyo and puts San Francisco’s MUNI to shame. If you just miss one train (as I did), not to worry, the next will arrive probably within 2 to 5 minutes. If you miss the N-Judah in old San Fran, chances are you will wait between 15 and 30 minutes. If you’re lucky. The trains are clean and the signs announcing their arrival even color-code the cars to show whether they’re relatively empty (green), full (red) or in-between (orange). How cool is that?

Yesterday, I talking to the students in my course about jazz as the gumbo mix of the meeting of diverse cultures, naming how that happened in New Orleans and New York. I went on to note the richness when the Moors, Jews and Catholics mixed in 15thcentury Spain (before Trump-like Ferdinand deported 2/3rds of the mix), noted the other rich musical mixtures (though horrendous political injustices) when Portugal met West Africa (Brazilian samba and beyond), Spain met West Africa (Cuban son and beyond). And then acknowledged that there was another rich mix right here in Singapore—Chinese, Malay, South Indian and European/American. But one can’t predict precisely how cultures mix. From my limited vantage point, most are keeping to their own, equally with restaurants, festivals and music. But what do I know? Maybe there’s some cool fusion groups doing kung-fu dances with Indian drums and singing Malay lyrics. 

I did a little research dipping back into my travel schedules and discovered that I’ve been here to teach seven times—2020/19/17/16/15/11/08. And came here for the first time (to a quite different city!) in 1979. So it seems indeed that there is some karmic thread linking me to here, as it has to other places I’ve kept returning to to teach—certainly the Spain, Salzburg, Sydney link, as well as Scotland, Sao Paolo and out of the S’s to Tokyo, Turkey, Finland, Italy, Canada, Ghana, China and more. A great pleasure to get to know a bit of these (and other) places while also sharing work that seems to be needed and enthusiastically received. Maybe I should start a Blog called “Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher” and talk about that! Ha ha!

For now, it’s back to the pool.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ain't Misbehavin'

The subject of children’s behavior came up in the course today and I punished the group by giving my long view answer before getting into the details. Ha ha! The short version was something like this.

“Compared to the days of ‘children should be seen but not heard,’ corporal punishment, 
hushing up life’s important stories (be it sex, that different uncle or social justice) and/ or children working in brutal conditions in factories or going to brutal schools as described in Dickens, it’s not a bad time to be a child. And yet, this time, like all times, has its own particular challenges and most of them are falling in the laps of teachers who thought they were signing up to teach a subject they loved, but are expected to be therapist, counselor, friend, policemen, healer, social worker and more to their children, children who may report a misunderstood incident that can get the teacher fired. 

So when children “misbehave” in class, there is a long list of possible energies at work that reflect the difficulty of being a child today. Amongst them:

• Childhood itself is threatened as the child’s deepest needs to move, to play, to explore, to engage the world sensually, to imagine, to work out the trials and triumphs of friendships, are all under attack. From one side, by overbearing parents overscheduling classes and organized activities outside of school and the pressure to work on improving test scores, from another by parents abandoning their children to screens designed for addiction, encouraging non-consequences of tweeting and texting free from face to face contact, reducing the child’s multi-sensual world to the flat two-dimensional world of screens with no smells, tastes or textures, short-circuiting the curiosity that arises from boredom, promising instant gratification that is shallow and superficial, inhibiting needed movement and exercise and robbing the children of nature’s precious window to know the world through the body, through the senses, through the imagination and through three-dimensional engagement with plants, animals and other breathing human beings.

• Families are confused, economically forced to work harder and harder, not clear whether to be their child’s friend, guardian, protector or guiding parent, either too much in their business or too little, expecting either too much or too little from the kids, not eating meals together, not conversing habitually, not making music together, being strict in the wrong way and loose in the wrong way. Of course, not all families, but the growing trend toward blaming the teachers instead of holding the child accountable under the illusion of “understanding the child” is making teaching yet harder than it need be.

• Culture—at least in the United States—is unravelling at an extraordinary pace so that the actions by and words of politicians (for example) that were unthinkable and 150% unacceptable a mere 5 years ago have suddenly become normalized. How can the children not feel this? How can they not feel abandoned by the people they’re supposed to look up to, who clearly act on behalf of their own selfish position of privilege and publicly proclaim without shame their lack of care for others, for the tenets of the most basic democracy, for the fate of the planet? 

• Nature (to quote Michael Meade) is rattling as culture is unravelling and children are picking up either directly by the fires and floods around them or hearing the news or feeling indirectly in the air the fear that their future is diminishing. With all of these heavy, heavy issues on their small, small shoulders, should we wonder that Johnny is misbehaving in music class? They “ain’t misbehavin’”—they’re singing the canary song in the mines that is off-key because there’s not enough air in there!

Of course, part of being a teacher is to help correct, guide, understand misbehavior and this involves another role as translator. Since “behavior is the language of children,” the teacher must decipher what’s going on, which can range from a child who didn’t eat enough breakfast to one worried about the fate of the universe. None of this background is intended to get children off the hook for stepping up to being a better citizen in class, but it does put us teachers in a position of re-evaluating if we are giving children what they deeply need in the face of everything they’re not getting (see above). All of the above is out of our control, but what happens in our class when we shut the door is where we can begin to change our often outdated notions of “misbehavior” and think an inch deeper about what’s really important in the short time we have with kids and how we can help them align themselves with the flow of a positive group energy. That has a different ring to it.”

Part II will offer some thoughts about how. Stay tuned.

Wrong Choice?

Singapore went up a color notch in the virus game, but so far, my small classes with no kids are holding steady and in fact, just have one more tomorrow before I’m home free. 

Today, we did the kid’s clapping game “Head and Shoulders” and when I had them make up new verses, many appropriately made it wholly contemporary. In fact, this new song could be government-approved and spread on all available media. Things like: 

“Wash your hands, baby, 1-2-3, 
Wash your hands, baby, 1-2-3
Wash your hands, wash your hands, 
Wash your hands, baby, 1-2-3.”

“ Wear a mask, baby…”

“ Stay at home, baby…”

Etc. Of course, the irony is that to properly play the game, you need to get out of the house, touch your partner’s hands and to properly sing, you need to take your mask off. Ah, this complex world.

Besides washing my hands a bit more frequently, I’m refusing to give in to hysteria and pretty much going on as normal. But yesterday, I was waiting for the elevator and just as the elevator doors opened, the man inside sneezed. Should I enter or wait for the next one? 

I entered. But truth be told, kind of held my breath until my floor. 

That was two days ago. So far, so good.