Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Tree Not Climbed

On a bench in Golden Gate Park

I happily sat reading

        poetry by Carl Dennis.

In front of me was a tree

with inviting branches,

the kind I would have instantly climbed

        in my youth.

All these long years later,

           I pondered how much daring I had lost.

Now it seems I’m content

           to just sit on the bench

                 and write a poem

                            about not climbing a tree.

Which is exactly what I did.

And then climbed it.

Friday, December 14, 2018


One of the most memorable moments in my life of education was a trip in the Ecuador rain forest guided by a Shuar Indian named Sebastian Mora. He was a fascinating man who first learned about the forest as his family, brought up by his culture to intimately know every leaf and twig and insect and bird and animal as one of his family neighbors, sometimes, friendly, sometimes dangerous. He then went to Europe to study botany and biology and had his foot in both worlds. But he was very clear that when he came back home with his European colleagues that his first education was far superior. They were book-learned and could identify plants by Latin names and knew something of their behavior, but really were at a loss when it came to understanding the deep intertwining relationships of all the living beings in the forest. And couldn’t have survived on their own in the place with what they knew.

I was only three days with Sebastian, but was consistently amazed by the stories he could read in his close observation of everything we passed and what all the signs meant. Where I just saw a collection of nouns, he was tuned to the verbs of interactions between them all and the finely-nuanced adjectives and adverbs. He got his daily news looking at animal tracks, scat, leaf closures and openings, shifts in the breeze, sounds in the night and more. No need for newspapers, magazines and certainly Facebook would have nothing to add to that exhilarating, always-changing, fascinating story about who walked here and what happened and what was worthy of notice and what was telling him to beware (“be aware”) and would was passing on some good news.

While I still have some time off, I made the wise choice of accepting my wife’s invitation to go with her to a class on Nature Drawing by a teacher she had been raving about. He had the prophetic name of John Muir Laws, something his nature-loving parents purposefully gave him to encourage his own emerging love of the natural world. It worked. His vocation is drawing plants, trees and birds (found in various publications) and sharing it by teaching classes that are partly about drawing, but equally about observation and understanding how much is written on a twig or a leaf.

I immediately saw why my wife was raving about him. He is an inspired and inspiring teacher who taught from the core of his self, using Powerpoint as the tool to do what it does best, but also a white board, his own body dancing out certain shapes, stories, humor and live demonstration of drawing on paper with colored pencils and water colors. And in a short hour and a half, he accomplished the two most important things a teacher can give a student:

1)   Revealing the beauty and mystery and miraculous nature of the world at our feet that often goes unnoticed. I like walking in the woods and was proud that I made an attempt years back to identify at least some plants, flowers, trees and such, but still was (and am) profoundly ignorant of the larger story—the character of each thing in Creation and how it is necessary to the next and how they interrelate and so on. The verbs of the whole deal. After this class, I walked in Golden Gate Park and already was looking at leaves and twigs from a whole different perspective, noticing details I never have before. 

2)  Leading you to do something beyond what you ever thought you could. The way my colleague Christa Coogan can lead anyone to dance better than they ever imagined, the way I try to lead people to discovering that they can play a jazz blues solo on the xylophone, he helped this non-artist draw a leaf that actually looked pretty good!

At the end of class, he invited people to continue to observe and notice and draw leaves and twigs and to make a conscious commitment to get beyond their “twignorance.” (I asked him
If he just made that up on the spot and he did! If it goes viral, please credit Jack Laws!)

Local folks, I highly recommend you look him up and drop in on a class. He also does whole day nature journaling walks in Marin County. Meanwhile, I’m off to remedy my twignorance.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


“The quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.”

There are forces in this world that can’t be seen, but are deeply felt. I feel them so often in sports games— that remarkable final drive by Tom Brady in the Super Bowl a couple of years back, the Warriors famous 3rd quarter surge. It’s not just the sum of the player’s efforts and talents. It’s this third thing that enters the mix and the fans feel it as well, urge it along with their cheers. The opposition has no choice but to soldier on, but you can feel the way they feel defeated by the surge of the momentum against them. Like swimming upstream, it’s just larger than one’s willful effort and starts to sweep things along by the sheer force of its power.

I’m feeling it now with the Mueller investigation. The midterms revealed that “there is a quantity of motion of a moving, more kind and just and tired of lies and deceit and mean-spiritedness, body, it’s mass is growing and it’s velocity increasing. Things are heating up in the back rooms of the good ole boys and even the Master Denier himself is beginning to look worried. For two years, the momentum was in the other direction and all we could do was retreat to the eddies and bide our time. But now, it’s a new story. Those bad people loyal to nothing beyond their own greed and ambition are now turning on each other and to keep mixing metaphors, the rats are starting to desert the sinking ship. Can you feel it? Every day, it’s getting closer and oh, dream of all dreams, might Santa come down the chimney, take the cookies and leave a subpoena at the White House?

One can never confidently predict anything in the political sphere these days, but I’m hoping others feel the momentum too. Momentum begets momentum and I can’t wait for the day to tell the children I teach, “You see what this kind of behavior and selfish character bring?” And if jail time were wrapped up in the surprise Christmas present, I would shriek like the child getting her first bicycle. How good to know that the fairy tales can come true! The bad guys get their just desserts and it ain’t milk and cookies. The hardest thing of these last two years is seeing how much the American public was willing to excuse and how much ugliness and nastiness was getting rewarded or bypassed.

I’ve lived most of my life going against the mainstream, but now I am happy to go with the flow and help nudge the momentum along. Go, Mueller, go!!!! We’re past the 50-yard line!!!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The End of Procrastination

How do we decide what we do every day? For most of us, our job takes care of that. Especially teachers. You have a schedule, kids show up at your door, you do something with them until the class is over and here comes the next bunch. There’s a clarity and comfort in this kind of work, no room to think, “Hmm. Should I teach these group of kids or lock the door and practice piano?” I imagine the same holds true for plumbers or cooks or clerks in stores. Just show up and do your work.

But for retired folks, administrators in-between meetings and most people on weekends, the day yawns before you with its blank hours and says, “Here I am. What are you going to do with me?” Feels to me like there are maybe five types of activities:

1)    Things that feed your soul. Play piano, paint a picture, meditate, write a poem, walk in the forest. There’s a thousand dishes that Soul loves to eat, depending on your taste and interests.

2)    Things that feed your body. Cook, eat, exercise and occasionally make love.

3)    Things that feed practical necessities. Caretaking activities like water the plants, feed the cat, wash the dishes, put air in the bike tires, get groceries at the store.

4)    Things that feed your social life. E-mails, coffee with a friend, gatherings with friends, Facebook posts, board games, cards or charades.

5)    Things that feed your need to relax. Read a book, magazine or newspaper, watch videos, movies, Youtube clips, listen to that new CD, things that allow you to shut off your thinking/ doing self and plop down on the couch with one directive: “Distract or enlighten me as you will, just entertain me!”

I’ve had such a productive and pleasurable three months off from school this Fall (one more to go!), feeding the mind through my writing and reading, the soul with morning meditation, the heart with playing piano, the body with bike riding and walking around the city (and time to cook good meals!). Without the school schedule, I’ve had the chance to create my own rhythmic cycle of activities—meditate, write, play piano in the morning, bike, walk, do errands in the afternoon, read-movie-listen-to-music-go-to-concert at night and truth be told, I love it. A bit worried about waking up in the dark come January, driving the route hoping to make the right lights, teaching some seven classes a day, going to staff meetings, planning the next day’s classes and so on. I imagine sometime after lunch, the kids will keep showing up at my door and I’ll be thinking, “This is really cutting into my day!”

So yesterday I got to a thrilling place in my writing where I declared myself done with the second draft of my new book and went to Kinko’s to get a bound copy made. There was a long wait in line there and I browsed through what I had written and was thrilled to discover I liked it! I had written exactly the kind of book I like to read and it was feeling like music with the rhythm and cadences of the sentences and the evocative images and the surprising left turns as I took ideas out of their lane and passed a few cars and then got back to the main route. That felt good.

But then today, without the next chapter or sentence to write, I was confronted with the opening question: “How do we decide what to do each day?” And not happy with my answer: “Deal with that thing you keep putting on your list and never do!!” It has to do with going through my book sales and figuring out how much money I owe my two colleagues whose books I’ve published, a skill that is complex, confusing and not up my anti-accountant-personality alley. But one I’ve felt guilty about for the last nine months! This very blog post is another step in my procrastination strategy! But there’s no more excuses. I’m going to do it! At least, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

What are the things we procrastinate with? I suspect the things that don’t automatically bring us pleasure and remind us of what we’re not good at. Yet still must be done. And let’s talk more about this… NO! Enough! Get going!!

Okay, I give up. Wish me luck!!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Room at the Inn

It’s time for my annual Holiday newsletter to send out to friends and to prepare, I re-read last year’s. I liked my ending paragraphs and find them still relevant today, with an added twist. My unfounded hopes from a year ago are on the cusp of being realized. The shift in political energy from the midterms, Mueller’s investigation rolling to a cadence and the taste of the possibility that the people who deserve their just desserts will finally get them—including a permanent Time-Out for the Toddler-in-Chief. How sweet that would be! And note my warning that if this indeed comes to pass, it’s not time to relax, but re-double our efforts to keep democracy alive and moving forward. Here’s the excerpt:

Can I get through this without mentioning the American political scene? Of course not! But you might be surprised to hear that I’m extremely hopeful. What happened last November revealed all the unresolved ugliness in American culture, but as the year went on, it also showed the beauty of the many who have been silent starting to speak up, the courage of those who have excused things starting to notice that it has gone too far, the long history of free speech helping to stem the tide of bad people in power trying to unravel democracy and our justice system keeping things together enough that the attempt to dismantle democracy is either halted or slowed and impeachment could become a reality. The big lesson is to not relax once these bad, bad people are gone, but to keep vigilant and most importantly, to educate, educate, educate. All ages, but particularly the young ones.

My world is populated with beautiful people from Iran, Turkey, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, China, Japan, India, Finland, Iceland, Spain, Austria and beyond and it warms my heart every moment I spend with them and hurts my heart that some of them can’t enter my country. The political scene at the moment is not only cruel and mean-spirited, but we have crippled ourselves by shooting ourselves in the foot every time we close the door and refuse hospitality and welcome. About to go to my annual Posada and sing the song where the innkeeper refuses a room to Mary and Joseph. When he finds out that she’s carrying “the Divine Spirit,” he smiles and says, “Oh, why didn’t you say so? Come on in!” If only we realized that every person who knocks at the door is carrying that Divine Spirit, we could finally be more generous and actually learn to love our neighbor the way someone suggested some 2,000 years ago. Wouldn’t that be a good idea?

So that’s it. As we turn with the year to 365 more chances to get it right, let’s collectively renew our vows to stay awake, be involved, speak out, listen, grant ourselves some stillness and silence. The happiest of holidays to you and yours!