Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why I Love Children




After posting these photos of the grandkids on Facebook, someone wrote:

Somehow the kid pix are just satisfying and simply lovely - a little treat in a complex world.

She got that right. The innocent smile of Zadie radiating love for life untrammeled by the world’s blows or her own failures, her and Malik looking out in wonder at the world at their feet— a treat indeed from the scowling faces of angry politicians who have locked away their childhood beauty and taken their disappointment out on the rest of us.

And that’s why any ideas of leaving the school where I have worked for 42 years seem absurd. Every day I’m brought back into my own “unless ye become as little children” self through the great privilege of playing, singing, dancing and talking with the little ones overflowing with love, life and humor. Children nurtured in a place that sees them exactly as they are while leading them to an adulthood led by their forever childlike curiosity, innocence and beauty. The child is not just an age— it’s a state of mind, a faculty of perception, a quality of spirit kept alive and sheltered from life’s litany of sorrow and disappointment. And in a time when the world goes a bit mad— truly, for most of our history—the children indeed are the makers of a radiant future of a better humanity, the ones we send down the paths we were unable to reach.

But none of this happens without effort. The brilliant visionary Maria Montessori wrote almost a century ago:

We should help the child, no longer because we think of him as a creature, puny and weak, but because he is endowed with great creative energies, which are of their nature so fragile as to need a loving and intelligent defense.

That’s our job as adults, to create schools dedicated to a “loving and intelligent defense” of the child’s creative energies. A pretty good description of where I work. And sad to report that most schools, instead of sheltering those delicate possibilities, contribute to the battering and send the excited, curious, enthusiastic learner who walks in at 3, 5 or 6 years old out the door at 18 or 22 with slumped posture wanting to know “Will this be on the test?”

In a time when ignorance, brutality and cynicism is poised to rule, why not re-double (or begin) our efforts to see children for who they are, give them what we need and help them become who they might be if they learn to keep the simplicity of their child nature alive inside the complexity of their adult self. Montessori again:

Noble ideals and high standards we have always had. They form a great part of what we teach. Yet warfare and strife show no signs of abating. And if education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of humanity's future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual's total development lags behind?

Instead, we must take into account a psychic entity, a social personality, a new world force, innumerable in the totality of its membership, which is at present hidden and ignored. If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men. The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.

And that's why these photos are a satisfying and simply lovely treat in a complex world. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sexy Grandpa


Like most full-blooded straight males, I spent a fair amount of time in my youth hoping I would be attractive to women. In my fantasy, I could just enter a room and let the flirting begin! Every encounter offered the possibility of irresistible offers that, of course, never came. Sure, there were occasional alluring smiles and interesting body language and looking out for particular folks at the Orff folk dancing nights. But all pretty tame.

But now that I’m in my 60’s, I’ve suddenly taken on an electric attraction and find that hundreds of alluring young women want to sleep with me. Well, at least in my SPAM folder. Here are some of the unexpurgated (pardon my French) offers I’ve received in e-mail headings:

• I’ll be your slave for sex
• Pretty housewife is looking for a lover
• Private dating for sex
• Need a girl for sex?
• Lover that will pay you for sex.
• Are you ready to meet and fuck someone’s wife?
• Searching for a sex-slave.
• Dating love and sex of course.
• Housewife is looking for a wealthy lover.
• Girl looks for a man than can satisfy her
• Are you ready to interview for a new position? (could be about sex or a job.)

Isn’t the Internet wonderful? See how it has brought us together and elevated us to the height of human possibility? If the electronic circuits of the Internet function as our giant collective brain, reveal what’s mostly going on in our own brains, what does that say about us a culture? The early proponents of computers as an extraordinary breakthrough in education and human thought, where a mere click of a button could bring us to the theory of relativity, the precepts of Buddhism and the complete Shakespeare, argued that i-Pads in the hands of children would set fire to their sparks of curiosity as to how the world works, in the hands of adults, raise the level of our national discourse geometrically.

Ha ha! Dream on! The kids are sitting in the back rows of school surfing for violent video games or soft porn, the adults are learning how to make bombs with time out for hard porn. The Hindus knew this millennia ago when they revealed the chakra system, the energy points along the spine that focus our attention and intentions. Food, sex and power are at the bottom of the ladder, the three nature gives us for free. Real humanity begins at the 4th heart chakra when an effort is made to move the energy up to a higher realm. It can never negate the first three, but it can transform them and keep them in check. TV advertising, Hollywood blockbusters, chat rooms and SPAM e-mails pretty much confirm that all the higher level thought that went into the Internet is mostly used for lower level purposes. It’s sex, money, violence, power all the way. Garbage in, garbage out.

The fact is that yes, you can read this blog because of the Internet and also look up the Indian chakra system. And you are and you might. But the mere existence of machines means nothing without the preparation of a real, analog education. As I wrote two blogs ago: “The Internet gives us instant access to the treasures of the world, but electronic signals alone are worthless without the human heart and mind prepared to seek them out and receive them.”

I don’t want to get too high and mighty here. Even Einstein and Gandhi and Mother Teresa still had these impulses at the base of their spine and in their brain stems. No question that these messages get my attention. But I talked to a computer guy and asked, “Just out of curiosity, what do you think would happen if I answered one of these sex offers? Is this my adolescent fantasy come true? Just click a button and get lucky that night?” He assured me that there’s probably a fat guy with a beer in one hand and his belly sticking out who just wants to get into my software. That disturbing image killed my notion that I was one sexy grandpa!

Now I’m not fond of seeing these blatant sex messages in my SPAM, proof that overthrowing the bonds of Victorian sexual repression did nothing really to free the human spirit. Some level of civility and decorum and restraint when it comes to our natural urges is a worthy goal of civilization. But hey, sexual energy is real and fun and playful and best when it comes with love and affection, but an intriguing little game that we play most of our lives. Until we don’t. Walking into a bar with hormones bouncing off the walls and all speeding right past me is—damn it!— part of nature’s way. But hey, young ladies, a harmless coy smile and lifted eyebrow is always appreciated by us guys, at any age. We know we’re in the left-field bleachers, but it’s nice to know we’re still at the game.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Icarus Walks the Ground


To get the big picture, you have to fly high above this world, looking down at the rectangular fields and tops of mountains and cars like ants criss-crossing the highways. That’s where my mind often likes to be, racking up frequent flyer miles in the higher realms of thought, making sweeping generalizations that encompass the whole view below.

So when I had 20 minutes (4 times, 4 groups) to talk to prospective parents at our school’s Open House, my first impulse was to speak or read some poetic overview, condensing 42 years of work and play and vision and constant reflection into some elevated speech that would catch their attention. That might have been fine, but for most it would have just been the noise of a plane flying overhead and what good is that?

So instead I had the good sense to do what I do best. Ask a surprising question that brings them into the game as participants rather than mere listeners and then awaken their body and voice and get the air charged with music and humor and the instant community of people playing together. I began with my “Who’s a musician? Who’s musical? Who loves music?” knowing that the answers would fall somewhere around 25%/ 50%/ 100%.  And then, Bam! the explosion of stories that burst in people’s heads when I continue, “Happy that you’re all not musicians. There’s not enough work to go around. And not surprised that you all love music. But not happy that some of you don’t think you’re musical? What happened to you?”

“Hmm,” think the people, “Didn’t expect to have to open that wound at a school Open House.” I quickly reassure them, “It’s not your fault, of course. It’s our cultural, collective failure because we treat music like a specialty reserved for the “talented” and narrow the definition of music to mean scraping a bow across strings while looking at black dots on paper to play correctly—or else!—notes written by dead white men. Maybe you lived in California and never had music in schools because of Proposition 13 or had a mean music teacher who killed your confidence and never was charged for the murder or were forced to take dull piano lessons when you really wanted to play Taiko drums. A thousand reasons for our culture’s failure to lead out the music locked inside waiting to spring free, but also a thousand ways to heal that wounded bird and entice it out into the open and get it singing. Starting with a completely different idea of what it means to be musical.”

You can see how Icarus had entered the conversation, so I quickly folded up the wings and said, “So when the kids come in, we sit on the floor with our legs crossed. What word goes well with ‘cross?’ “Criss!” someone volunteers and off we go. Step by simple step we move those two starting words “criss-cross” into a full blown piece (Criss-cross Applesauce) using speech, body percussion, canon and musical form, faces alive with expression, bodies bubbling with rhythm, minds scrambling to get firm-footing on the sequence and heart peeking out from its habitual armor and thinking, “This is fun!”

Applause at the end and then I ask, “Was that musical?” Heads nodding. “Did you make the music?” Heads nodding. “Therefore according to the laws of logic (a faculty of mind on the endangered species list in this country’s discourse), what is the conclusion? Yep, you got it. YOU ARE MUSICAL! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case."

"And that’s the kind of proof we’ll give your kids, twice a week for 45 minutes and every day for 20 minutes of singing. That’s how we’ll help the little ones who come in supremely musical with the way they chant and move and sing while they’re playing grow into the big ones who can play the heck out of Miles Davis and Vivaldi and Balinese gamelan, sing in 20 different languages in 20 different styles, dance what they feel and also get some pretty good samba, salsa, Ghanaian Bobobo and Lindy Hop moves. They’ll compose, create, improvise each step of the way, know intimately how to blend in in ensemble and how to stand out in solos and fearlessly perform in front of 4000 teachers without batting an eye. Sound good?”

So now Icarus is up flying again, but it all makes sense because they’ve first walked the ground that now they can view from above. If that old Greek guy had had the good sense to come down when he felt himself getting too far away, he could have avoided disaster. So note to self:

1)    Begin on the ground.
2)    Lift up slowly and enjoy the view.
3)    Come back down before you go too far.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Angur, Inab, Unum, Astaphil— Wine at the Crossroads


A man gives money to a Persian, an Arab, a Turk, and a Greek travelling together to spend together as they wish. The Persian said he wants to use it to buy "angur," the Arab said he wants to buy "inab", while the Turk and the Greek were for buying "unum" and "astaphil."
Owing to their ignorance of each other's languages, they didn’t know they all asked for wine. Thinking they each wanted to buy something different, a violent quarrel arose between them.
At last a wise man who knew all their languages came up and explained to them that they were all wishing for one and the same thing.
                                                                        - Rumi: 13th century mystic poet
I have sometimes wondered whether my Jewish bloodline, Unitarian upbringing, Zen Buddhist practice, African xylophone/ Bulgarian bagpipe/ Bach organ/ Jazz piano/ body percussion/ banjo plucking musician self, my author-musician-Orff teacher self, might ever prove useful to the world and if so, how? Though not wholly eloquent and fluent in any one of the above, they all help me move closer to the “wise man who knew all the languages.” Perhaps I can help others see with certainty that all the different names for Spirit are obstructions to the incontrovertible truth—they are all one and the same thing. All of them. Each may carry a different accent or flavor or shine the light on a different facet of the many-faceted diamond of our spiritual self and viva la diferance!! The God I know is plural and each one of her thousand faces has something to offer. And how rich that Spirit is when one can enter through crossed-legs, hands on drums, dancing feet, singing voice, sounded poetry and more. Each doorway reveals a different room in the house of God.
I once attended a seminar with the poet David Whyte on the theme of belonging. I asked him since I didn’t belong wholly to any one of the above, where was my home? He replied: “At the crossroads.” That feels right. And as a teacher of children and adults, my hope is to reveal the splendors of that intersection, raise multi-languaged people capable of conversing with all the travelers passing through.
Musically, the students at our school are equally at home with Fats Waller, Frederic Chopin and Finnish folk songs, can move seamlessly between 60’s Freedom songs, Frosty the Snowman and Filla-may-oree-oree ay, can find music on whatever is put before them, from Ghanaian and Thai xylophones to Indonesian angklung to congas and djembes to recorders and Norwegian overtone flutes to guitars, banjos and ukuleles to rubber pigs and chickens to violins and clarinets and trumpets. They can dance the Samba, Salsa, Swing and Scandinavian folk dance. They can sing in English, Spanish, French, German, Bulgarian, Thai, Mandarin, Ewe, Xhosa, Quechua, Maori and more. They partake of the great stories in drama that go from Caps for Sale to Macbeth, that cross borders to visit The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Sundiyata and The Ramayana.
The crossroads is the place where the market sets up, that buzzing, hustling, bustling place of exchange of goods, ideas, culture. As good as any—and better than most—image of what a school can be, a place at the intersection of a past filled with glory and horror, a present alive with the excitement of meeting the “others” until they become familiar, on the way to a future filled with both the hope and the skills for peaceful and rich co-existence on our tiny planet. The Internet gives us instant access to the treasures of the world, but electronic signals alone are worthless without the human heart and mind prepared to seek them out and receive them.

So come join me at the crossroads with a glass of angur or inab or unum or astaphil—take your pick—and let’s toast to the Community of Spirit that we can share— once we understand the languages.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Belated Thanks


If we lived properly, we would spend much of each day on our knees thanking all who make our lives possible.  I mean the plants who do the work of photosynthesis and offer themselves to make our daily bread, the animals who also give food and comfort and birdsong in the morning, the folks who deliver our mail or transport goods in trucks or play violins and saxophones to soothe our soul. We would be steeped in gratitude and not have time to make money and wars and such.

Today I would like to thank the inventor of the hot water heater. I apologize for being remiss in my appreciation, of taking for granted the warmth of the daily shower, the heat of the daily shave. San Francisco’s winter has arrived and in my house without central heating, it’s an effort to throw aside the down comforter and meet the cold air. But it makes the splash of hot water yet more of a blessing. I’m sorry I never thanked my hot water heater properly, but it’s not too late. Thank you.

Likewise the inventor of the sweater and the knitter of the same, the hot air fan in the car, the chugging heater in my hall. You all make it possible for me to stay in San Francisco and avoid the lemming plunge to Florida, where three times now, that population has helped usher in national disaster. Whereas my beloved city has declared independence from Trumpnation in a beautiful resolution approved by the Board of Supervisors. I don’t want to take any of this for granted.

Hot oatmeal awaits. Thanks to the kettle, the oats, the raisins, the bowl, the spoon. And yet again, hot water to wash them clean. Tomorrow will be the ode to indoor plumbing.