Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Praise Inflation

As a college student, I was briefly into a book by B.F. Skinner called Walden Two. It was a Utopian fantasy and as I remember, the rule was you never said thank you to anyone or praised them because people should just do what’s right. Then there was that horrible movie Whiplash with that psychopathic music teacher who shouted and hit and threw things at his students and told them they were garbage and said the two worst words a teacher could say was “Good job!” Then there was the Bible quote I read daily in my high school chapel services: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” And don’t forget, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

I know deep down in my bones that people of all ages need sincere praise the way plants need water and sunlight. That the Whiplash style creates fear in the room and shuts people down to their lowest instinctive brain, blocking access to higher thinking skills and imagination. The open mind and heart and body are the beginning of wisdom, not fear of a wrathful god or an angry teacher. So I have lived my life in defiance of fear-based education and tried to offer a model of fun, warmth, humor and love. And mostly it has worked pretty well.

But yet again at school, I’m finding myself pissed off at the tone of certain classes and the kids thinking that it’s just fine to have side-conversations and ignore the teacher (ie., me!) if they feel like it. And so continuing the conversation opened in my Three Truths blog, I’m feeling that the Praise Inflation in my school has reared some unsightly little demons and monsters. My go-to tone is relaxed and friendly, but it has felt that the some classes this year didn’t step up to the mark and fell short of the idea that they would be as respectful to me as I am to them.

So after gently cajoling one class this morning, I finally said, “Enough. I’m walking out of the room and you need to clean it and if you want to find me to apologize, I’m open to hearing it.” To their credit, they did clean the room and about 8 of them sincerely apologized. When the next half-group came in, I told them what happened and let them know I would be in police mode and that a single word of interruption would have severe consequences. They got quiet, seemed to figure out that I really meant it and I had the most delightful class with 100% attentive listening and no interuption. Likewise, the entire elementary school came into to singing—100 kids—without a single sound and stayed 100% focused during the 15-minute period. A combination of game-playing (“This will be a school record!!”), threats (“No mudpie dessert on the last day of school if I need to talk to you.”) and reflection (“How many kids sincerely enjoyed the feeling in the room compared to yesterday when you came in so noisily?)

Temporary measures all, but I should be happy that they were effective and of course, it’s a reminder to me to be 100% clear about my expectations and follow through with consequences. And a reminder to them to step up to the task of being a good student and not feel that they constantly have to express themselves. To be blunt, they need to learn to shut-up and listen.

Having been around kids in Europe, Asia, West Africa, I can safely generally say that this is a bit of an American problem, this notion of giving kids too much power and wanting to be too much their friends and being part of a culture that has some pretty miserable role models of how an adult should act (see POTUS and his henchmen). Again, as a child myself, I rebelled against the blind respect of elders and bought into the idea that such respect needed to be earned. But I’m changing that tune somewhat. Especially since what we’re actually offering at school is so much more engaging, child-friendly, creative and just plain fun than what I had to sit through.

In the world of material things, it is a gospel truth that scarcity breeds appreciation and abundance breeds taking things for granted (is there a word for this?). Why was gold so valuable? Because it was scarce. No one built an economy on pebbles. When there’s not much of something, we tend to value it more. When everything comes easily with little effort and is easily replaceable, we don’t attend to it as carefully as we might.

And so with praise. The more we praise, the less it is valued. Think of those classic novels where a parent withholds praise and demonstrative love from a child and then on his or her deathbed, gives a few words of blessing.  After a lifetime of starvation, that little morsel can redeem it all. Well, at least in the novels.

I don’t recommend such extremity of no praise, as it indeed causes more suffering than any human being, child or adult deserves. But likewise, the constant waterfall can cause a different kind of damage. In short, praise what it indeed praiseworthy in small doses, praise the action more than the person, praise what has contributed to the community.

Now please tell me, how did you like my blog?! J

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Four Seasons

No, it’s not the piece by Vivaldi nor the restaurant in New York. It’s the four basic weather groups of San Francisco—Fog, Sun, Rain, Wind.

The Fog in summer is delightfully romantic. If you live in Berkeley and can see it swirling from afar as you sunbathe on your deck. Inside of it for weeks on end, it’s just plain annoying. For this transplanted East Coaster, summer is not supposed to be like this.

But the up side is that we generate a lot of revenue selling sweatshirts to freezing tourists. And when the fog is behaving itself, it does tend to burn off by the afternoon.

Now the Sun in the Fall is simply a treasure. For maybe four or five days, it cranks up hot enough to dip into the ocean and the night streets of San Francisco are bustling with action. Such a rare pleasure to sit outside for dinner without a heat lamp. Hands down, it’s my season of choice.

The winter Rains have their good sides. First off, we need water. Lots of it. The hills turn green, we flush our toilets without guilt, the snow sports folks are in white heaven up in the Sierras and let’s face it, there is something cozy and meditative sitting in the shelter of one’s home with the sound of raindrops, a hot beverage and a good book.

And then we come to Spring and the last of the four elements—Wind. And after battling it for the last week—and a cold wind at that—I’m having trouble thinking of a single good thing to say about it. When we should be picnicking in the park reciting poetry to the daffodils, it’s blowing us around, scattering our paper cups and plates and bags and generally making it impossible to relax and soak in a moment’s peace and quiet. It’s like having a severe ADHD pack of kids bouncing around you when you’re trying to count a breath or two. 

And let’s face it, San Francisco has a litter problem and the wind whipping it all around and up and over and under and hither and thither does not help matters. And while I’ve come to accept and even enjoy the challenge of the city’s hills when biking, I find nothing charming about biking headfirst into the wind or being almost blown over by an unexpected gust from the side. And unlike the fog that eventually lifts, the wind seems to keep at it all day long and into the evening.

Of course, it’s fruitless to complain about the weather, but hey, Mr. Wind, can you just give it a rest here? Give us a few calm and warm Spring days before the Fog rolls in? Please?

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Circle Around the Arrows

 A famous archer traveled the countryside in search of a worthy rival. He heard of a particularly skilled archer and went to her house to meet her. Next to the house was a barn filled with targets and each target had an arrow right in the center of bull’s eye. Mightily impressed, he knocked on the door and asked to see the archer. To his surprise, an 8-year old girl came out. He introduced himself and asked her,

“I noticed the barn wall filled with targets and everyone of your arrows hit its mark. Tell me, what is your secret?”

“It’s quite simple,” replied the girl. “ I shoot arrows at the barn wall and then go up and draw targets around each one.”

Many times in a meeting or workshop or event like my recent Spring Concert, I find a moment to speak, searching for what needs to be said that no one else has said yet. (See the blog Represent for an example.) People sometimes come up to me afterwards and share that they were moved by my words and they seemed to be the exactly right ones to frame the occasion. Somehow I said precisely what they felt, but they hadn’t found the words for yet. When asked how I do that, I think of this story.

The right words for the occasion are simply the target drawn around the place the arrow landed, the ones that give a meaning and a purpose hidden in the situation itself, but needing to be spoken out loud to complete the experience. Sometimes the words affirm what people felt but needed to be cognizant of more precisely what that was, sometimes they challenge and reveal a new perspective that others hadn’t consciously considered, but now seemed to be right on the mark. Whether they are pointing out the flowers in the bushes or the elephant in the room, the result is the same.

I’m still trying to figure out what I have to offer the world and I know it has something to do with the power of art and the necessity for community and an increased awareness and caring for social justice and the creation and carrying of cultivated culture and the beauty and delight of children and the dignity and wisdom of elders and the joy of playing, singing and dancing and… well, all of it and more. Perhaps it all boils down to finding authentic meaning amidst the apparent chaos and my lifetime of reading non-fiction, fiction, poetry, writing articles, essays, occasional poetry is a large part of what has prepared me to find the right words at the right time for the right occasion. And this blog.  2038 targets over 7½ years drawn around the arrows of my daily experience. That’s a lot of practice.

Of course, I don’t always get it right. I’ve said—and still say— a lot of stupid things that turned an occasion sour. Or added nothing to the discussion or left people cold. That’s just the way things work. But it’s the commitment to attempt to draw the targets that makes things feel more interesting than a bunch of random arrows sticking out of a barn wall. That’s my path in life and one I’m grateful for and happy to accept.

Now off to shoot some more arrows.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Prius Monk's Cell

Consider the car. Starting sometime in the 1950’s, with the expansion of car sales and highways and the on-the-road Keruoackian adventures that could be had, the car became a multi-purpose home away from home. It offered freedom, privacy, solitude, companionship depending on your mood and circumstance. It could be a drive-thru restaurant, a back-seat motel to explore the forbidden, a movie theater seat at the drive-in, a seat in the radio concert of your choice, a lecture hall, a ticket to the ballpark , a transport promising adventure or homecoming or escape, a monk’s cell to ponder one’s thoughts in solitude—at least until the cars behind you start honking because you didn’t notice the light changing.

This morning, I got into my car as usual and felt a welcome lightness spreading through the body. Probably the result of having finished my own concert last Saturday, the 100 elementary kids on Tuesday, the 90 Middle School kids on Thursday. Nothing more on my plate except the two-hour clean-up and re-organizing the music room, two 5-year old classes, a singing time, a 4th grade class, a preschool singing time, a Jewish Home singing time. Well, not exactly a “Yee-Haw—I’m done!!” scenario, but compared to the concerts, pretty light fare.

It was a chilly morning (come on, San Francisco, it’s May!), so I put the heat on and decided to listen to Brad Mehldau playing Bach and I suddenly felt so cozy and relaxed and soothed by the music. The moment grew a thickness to it that I can touch on those rare blessed occasions where I feel graced with being fully present in the moment. In short, my God (or gods) were in heaven and all was right with the world. And all of this was available dressed in a warm wool sweater instead of a hair shirt, enjoying the comfort of the car’s heater and the luxury of Bach at my fingertips instead of shivering seated on a stone floor, no sins to be expiated or privations to suffer to access the path to the Spirit, no guilt enjoying looking at women out the window, no cry of anguish to be redeemed from my exile. Just reveling in my Prius Monk’s Cell, grateful for the warm air circulating and the sounds caressing my ears and the clear knowledge that I certainly am no saint, but my dedication to bringing joy and pleasure to children, adults and elders alike should at least get me into the balcony section of heaven, if not the orchestra seating.

Generally, I go from one period of intensity directly to the next and believe me, the three remaining weeks of school will be no picnic. On top of closing out the classes and writing report forms, I’m throwing in an appearance at a camping trip, a Samba contest and then the usual ceremonial farewells in which I play a relatively large part. And after that are the six summer courses I will teach in Ghana, Madrid, Barcelona, San Francisco, Carmel Valley and Toronto. Not a lot of beach time, though there will be some for sure. And a good deal of it will be outside of cars, back to walking slowly and solidly on this earth. And some biking too.

But meanwhile, I’m grateful for my little Prius Monk’s Cell for at least 40 minutes a day as I commute back and forth.  And all the creature comforts it offers. A few blogs ago, I complained about the 21st century. But hey, there are some pretty good perks as well!


“I said it! I meant it! I’m here to represent it!” — From a rap song

The annual Spring Concerts have come and gone and I must say they were magnificent. Every child—almost 200 to be exact—from 1st through 8th grade had their moment on the stage proving that they are a musical being and that when they join with the 15-30 other musical beings from their class and present it to the public, the results are impressive. For two hours on Tuesday night with the elementary students and another two hours on Thursday night with Middle School, the world was filled with beauty, humor, hope and joy. If anyone lucky enough to be in the audience was not lifted up and had their faith in humanity restored, well, it’s not my fault. Every minute was a testimony to the humanitarian promise of the children who will carry their best selves into a more resplendent future.

Or at least show us the best they are at 6, 10 or 14 years old by playing music, singing, acting, dancing just right for their developmental stage. Indeed, part of the genius of this Orff approach well done is that children are not trying to narrow the gap between their undeveloped musical skills and Bach or Chopin, but instead are playing the music that fits their technique, understanding, hearing at the precise age they are, that allows them to wholly be the child they are in the moment, ever upward-striving, but not trying to jump over some random pre-arranged bar of a non-changing dead white guy score. They are composing, creating, improvising and mastering the music that fits them at this glorious moment in their development. And each age has its own level of glory, so that 8th grade is not one note more musically satisfying or awe-inspiring than 1st. Do you understand what I mean here?

Of course you don’t! Not if you haven’t witnessed this yourself or more to the point, experienced this yourself in an Orff workshop or lived a life trying to re-orient your strange inherited notion of music as learning what buttons to push as you read dots on a paper to something much larger, much more artistic, much more expressive and certainly, much more fun.! A big shout-out to my extraordinary colleagues SofĂ­a Lopez-Ibor and James Harding who like me (at least until recently with my SF Jazz debut!), have dedicated themselves to using the full range of their considerable intelligence, imagination, musicianship and love for children to make music of the highest caliber with the little ones. The way they wove together drama, poetry, visual arts, film, dance, music, song, kids’ composition and improvisation and more into one glowing whole simply has to be seen and heard to be believed. And the video won’t capture the tangible feeling of the room that something sacred and simple and extraordinarily complex is happening in here, will miss the vibrations of being present for the real deal. Anything that a school should care about—intelligent thought, heart-felt feeling, social communion, individual and collective expression, trained articulate movement and physical mastery, a connected curriculum of themes explored from multiple angles, discipline, spontaneity— you name it, we got it. We not only talked the talk and walked the walk, but we danced the walk and sang the talk! People, it simply doesn’t get any better than that.

Before the 8th grade rehearsal, I was trying to re-direct some of the boisterous almost-out-of-here energy (and believe me, they’re ready, but they’re also deeply, deeply aware that the school has gifted them with a life and a blessing and a sense of belonging that tragically most kids in most schools don’t get) and gave them a little speech. As follows:

What we’re doing here isn’t all about you. Of course, a large part is, inviting you yet one more time to show the full range of your talent, your character, your dedicated hard work that has brought you to the musician you are. But it’s about so much more. When you step on stage, you’re representing that best self and that’s the only self we want to see. But you’re also there to represent your class and to show what you have accomplished together. You’re there to represent your family. You’re there to represent your culture and your ancestors. When Cody sings the Kang Ding Love song and Joel sings La Llorona, that’s what you’re hearing when you feel some extra bit of soul beyond just singing the right notes with a pretty voice. You’re there to represent the school and carry on and even improve a bit 43 years of our dedication to the arts and all the hundreds of kids who have been on this stage before you—some of those alums who will be in the audience tonight! You’re here to represent what lies ahead for the kids younger than you, the future generations who will come onto this stage after you’re gone. You’re there to represent the countless hours, so many outside of our paid time, that James, Sofia and myself have put into drawing out your musicianship, some of you for eleven whole years. You’re there to represent the music itself and play it so well with such interesting new twists that Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Scott Joplin, Benny Goodman, will feel your energy from that other world and want to peek in to see what’s going on. Like the movie Coco shows, you are keeping them alive and happy by remembering them and playing their songs.

Finally, you’re there to represent intelligence itself. What it looks and feels like as you negotiate the complex structures and patterns and forms of music. You’re there to represent imagination itself as you reveal the lie of separate subjects and show how all things are connected and how there are no boundaries when human beings start to dream out loud. You’re there to represent our humanitarian promise as you show the deep levels of the way we’re connected by the way music demands such connection to be able to speak its piece. You’re there to represent the power of diversity, the way we are enlarged and refreshed and made so much better when we accept and enjoy music from China, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Spain, Greece, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa and beyond. When we enter the worlds of Handel and Vivaldi and Stravinsky and Philip Glass, of blues and ragtime and swing band music and jazz standards and jazz rock.

Intelligence. Imagination. Humanitarianism. Commitment to diversity. Culture. Each one of these qualities seems like an endangered species in our country today. By taking them seriously, by representing them, you are committing a much needed, radical and dangerous act that subverts the move to get us to stop thinking, stop imagining, stop feeling, stop caring so that rich and powerful people can keep doing their self-serving, greedy work to kill democracy as we have dreamed it. What we do here tonight can have echoes far beyond a cute Spring Concert. It is an act of resistance.

All of this is in our school Mission Statement: “To celebrate and cultivate the intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise of each student in a community that practices mutual respect, embraces diversity and inspires a passion for learning.” But hey, every school has a nice sounding mission statement. Tonight is the time to show the real deal, to make it come alive in three-dimensional form, to live it in front of an audience that will witness it and if we do our work well, leave that theater with their faith in humanity restored.

That’s a lot to put on your shoulders! But I believe you can handle the weight. You were just thinking it was another day in the life when you get to go up and play a few songs and fool around with your friends. Well, at the end that’s exactly what I want you to do—though make sure the fooling around is contributing and not taking away! But you are mature 8th graders representing, we hope, the best that this school has offered in over 50 years of a glorious vision. So before you step on stage tonight, give a moment’s thought to everything that you’re representing and go out and grab it and swing it around by its tail. As the song says,

“I said it! I meant it! I’m here to represent it!!”