Thursday, October 19, 2017

Doing Nothing

Had some unexpected free time at school today and instead of checking e-mail, made the brilliant decision to go outside. Met up with some kids drinking tea made from herbs in the garden, watched my 4th graders playing a game in P.E., just stood for a moment listening, observing, smelling the finally smoke-free air. And while savoring those moments, thought about how proscribed my life had become—an ongoing series of scheduled events, habits, routines, commitments. Each one worthy and enjoyable, but the combined effect of which is the sense of just “getting through the day” ticking off the things on my list. Such a far cry from being wholly present and ready for the unexpected, wholly aware that this particular moment, whatever presents itself, is the paradise we’re all seeking if only we paid enough attention.

The other day, I presented a theory of education to the Interns from Alfred North Whitehead and passed on an article about it I wrote many years back. It held up and so I present it here. Part I is just the introduction, but is a good reminder of the wisdom of just going out (away from screens!!!!) and doing nothing. Enjoy!

"WHERE DID YOU GO?"  "OUT."  "WHAT DID YOU DO?"  "NOTHING."  How it was when you were a kid— and how things have deteriorated since." is more than just one of the world's longest book titles. It's an obscure little jewel I found in my parent's bookshelves that never was a best-seller or a literary masterpiece, but is filled with great insight, much humor and a call back to a childhood that has largely been lost in our contemporary world. "When you were a kid..." meant when the author—Robert Paul Smith—was a kid in the 1920's; "how things have deteriorated..." meant the year it was published—1957. When I opened it as a 16-year old in 1967 already nostalgic for the lost romance of my childhood, I recognized an earlier version of my own delight in growing up. I didn't play marbles or know much about mumbly-peg or building a treehouse, but I did spend quite a bit of time making forts from abandoned Christmas trees, exploring vacant lots, reading comic books, playing hide and seek, choosing up teams for baseball without a single grown-up nearby and generally doing what the author called "running around."

"That was the main thing with kids then; we spent an awful lot of time doing nothing. There was an occupation called 'just running around.' It was no game. It had no rules. It didn't start and it didn't stop...Many, many hours of my childhood were spent in learning how to whistle. In learning how to snap my fingers. In hanging from the branch of a tree. In looking at an ants' nest. In digging holes. Making piles. Tearing things down. Throwing rocks at things. Spitting. Breaking sticks in half. Unplugging storm drains, and dropping things down storm drains, and getting dropped things out of storm drains (which we called sewers.) So help us, we went and picked wild flowers...Catching tadpoles. Looking for arrowheads. Getting our feet wet. Playing with mud. And sand. And water. You understand, not doing anything...."

Growing up in the 50's in the United States was a bit different from the 20's. TV and Little League were kicking in, but mostly the adults in my neighborhood left us kids free to entertain ourselves. With a 200-acre park a block from my house, lots of kids in the neighborhood, books, records and a few board games in the house, we were masters of self-entertainment, experts at "just running around."

Like many children since the institution was invented, school came as quite a shock to us. Suddenly there were rules and schedules that stopped and started. Whistling and snapping fingers were considered useless, hanging from a branch dangerous, getting wet unhealthy and doing nothing an offense when there was so much to do—adding things, then subtracting them again, seeing Dick and Jane going, then coming back again. There were things that had to be learned and adults who never could quite explain why they had to be learned. But we kids somehow understood that, Peter Pan notwithstanding, we couldn't spend our lives "just running around doing nothing"—there were newspapers to read, bills to pay, jobs to be worked, all of which needed the kind of knowledge that came from books and math worksheets. School was a necessary evil, to be patiently endured until the weekend or, joy of all joys! summer vacation. Occasionally, the two worlds came together —a report on our favorite book or science project probing the question we had always yearned to know. But mostly, there was school and there was summer and never the twain shall meet.

My whole adult career as a teacher, I have been obsessed with this question: are the worlds of discovery and curriculum indeed so separate? Might there be a way to bring them together, or rather, restore them to their intrinsic wholeness? Can a child stay a child while growing towards adulthood? Can an adult be an adult without sacrificing the quality of childhood? Might "school and summer" be part of the same continuum?

When I fell into teaching music at schools, the choice seemed promising. Now whistling and snapping fingers were restored to their seat of importance and playing music was a summer-friendly verb. Yet much of music as I had learned it was school-groomed—notes to read, beats to count, right and wrong keys to push down, constant homework (called practice) and final exams (called recitals). There were rewards to be had, from gold stars to prizes, and occasionally, punishments from strict teachers for not curving the fingers. The typical piano lesson was school all the way.

I was fortunate to bump into an approach to music education that encouraged play and exploration—Orff Schulwerk. The Schulwerk was a "schoolwork" unlike any I had ever known. My first Orff teacher, Avon Gillespie, went so far as to speak about the "curriculum of joy." "Joy" was not a word easily spoken inside the school building. Yet Carl Orff and his successors not only permitted fun to enter the picture, but also insisted that it was actually essential to successful education. I entered my teaching career in faith that this was so, spending the first fifteen years relearning how to have fun in the classroom and the next twenty finding out what it meant for children and their development.

To be continued tomorrow…

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Reflection in the Mirror

I love my 8th grade students. I really do. Admire their combination of being savvy about serious social issues and being willing to play like little kids. They’re pretty much the kind of musicians I love jamming with and we are and equally the kind of young adults I can share both humor and sincere feelings with. But let’s face it. They’re 8th graders. And they go to lots of movies and play video games and watch TV and watch the shameless circus of the Administration and there’s no way that doesn’t leak into their tender souls.

Case in point. After some preparation with a Marcel Marceau book yesterday to create some mimed skits “a la silent movie” while I accompanied with the ragtime piece they’re working on, I gave them full autonomy today and let them make up their own little story. There were three small groups and each story’s plot was essentially: “Hitting each other. Shooting each other. Getting drunk. Hitting each other some more.” It was less than aesthetically pleasing, to say the least.

So for the next group, I limited their themes to:
• Training a dog.
• Cooking in a kitchen and burning the meal.
• Complaining in a restaurant.

What a difference! Each skit was imaginative, PG so younger kids could enjoy, funny, sweet. They rose up from the three lower chakras into a higher realm worthy of their potential.

Every time I go to the movies, I am astounded by the coming attractions. Really? Monsters, guns, screaming people, sexy women, macho men, vanquishing evil with ever more technical weaponry enhanced by special effects. Is that all you have? Do we really need another movie like this? And isn’t it just possible that the ongoing onslaught starts to numb us to tender feeling, intelligence, nuance and such? I’m not being a prude here and enjoy an occasional well-done shoot-em-up, but the sheer volume of these blockbusters and the pumped-up sensory and emotional and psychic assault can’t be good for us. Especially if you’re 6 or 9 and 12 years old. If nothing else, it robs us of imagination and that’s what the kids were showing me—first idea, violence. Second idea, violence. Third idea, with the teacher prodding… “oh, maybe we could do something else?”

I had shown them Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin just before today’s exercise and there was a little bit of slapstick roughhouse. But really, Keaton is much more about setting up an expectation and foiling it, like a cop chasing him and them both stop at a corner to let a car pass like good citizens and then resume the chase. And Chaplin made a dance from two potatoes, a remarkable sequence at a factory, a breathtaking waltz of a Hitler with the world balloon. And Marcel Marceau held our attention as a lion tamer with an imaginary lion.

If you want to see the kind of world we’re bequeathing to our kids, watch them at play acting out the things they see around them, the distorted sex and violence of the movies and the yet more dangerous and distorted sex and violence of the Trump/O-Reilly/Weinsteins, the foul and low language, the macho threats to other madmen. No clear and easy path to change those channels, but at least we can lead kids to their larger imagination than mere reflection, get them to turn off the damn screens, offer them the joys of genuine creation. That’s what I’ll keep working on in tomorrow’s classes.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Comfort Food

Warinanco Park, all 200 glorious acres of it, was a mere half block from my New Jersey childhood home. Growing up in a time when parenting meant shooing the kids out of the house and telling them to “go play, just be back in one piece for dinner one it gets dark,” it was a paradise for my friends and me. Woods to play hide-and- seek in, trees to climb and sticky sap all over you if you chose a pine tree, a lake to skip stones in, a Lover’s Lane to spy on our future incarnation as teenagers, open fields to catch falling Autumn leaves, hills to sled down in Winter. There were tennis courts, basketball courts, a track-and field, kid-worn baseball diamonds to play pick-up games and more official baseball diamonds with amateur adult teams playing. Many a summer night I sat on the bleachers passing time with America’s favorite passed time, just slow enough to savor the approaching firefly night and interesting enough to stay to see who won and occasionally stand up when the ball went far into the outfield.

And here I am, an adult living again a half-a-block away from another park, this one Golden Gate Park and a thousand acres, but also with woods and lakes and fields and baseball diamonds (hmm. Wonder where Lover’s Lane is?). So in the late afternoon on a warm day and the smoke finally cleared, I sauntered over to Big Rec and watched a baseball game of amateur vaguely uniformed adults. A Middle Eastern family was nearby playing with their little boy, who was laughing uproariously at their antics. Two boys in another family where carrying on the time-honored childhood tradition of rolling down the grassy hill and getting dizzy. It all put me on a little bridge walking back to my own childhood and felt like comfort food for the soul.

Goodness knows we all need it in these crazy times. We feel obligated to keep up with the news even knowing it will knock us down and trample down any chance of unabated happiness in the day. But we also need to take care of ourselves. It’s a good time to look back into one’s memory and spend some time with those moments of magic and mystery, those feelings of comfort and safety and security, those gifted moments of “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” I believe we’ve all had them. Even the deeply wounded ones who are getting their revenge on us for not getting enough of them could probably find one and sit with it if they looked hard enough.

I’m not suggested we retreat back there and lock the door behind us, away from “the too-rough fingers of the world.” (Langston Hughes). But we certainly should visit and shut the door until we’re ready to emerge refreshed, stronger, ready to face what comes next from a position of renewed strength and refreshed by some beauty we once knew. To sit down to a meal of comfort food, no apologies, and partake freely.

And then find a friend and go roll down a hill. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Nothing New Under the Sun

After a three- year hiatus, I’ve happily resumed my annual ritual of reading a Charles Dickens’ novel every Fall. I chose Barnaby Rudge, one of his lesser-known stories and one that I had only read once. Only 100 pages in, but it holds up. Dickens simply is a great writer with a breathtaking ability to turn a phrase, a master storyteller and inventor of memorable characters and a keen observer of human nature.

Re-reading him in these “best of times, worst of times” life we’re living, I have been astounded by some of the passages. Like this one:

ˆ…John Willet was a burly, large-headed man with a fat face, which betokened profound obstinacy and slowness of apprehension, combined with a very strong reliance upon his own merits. It was John Willet’s ordinary boast that if he was slow, he was sure…always sure that what he thought or said or did was right, and holding it as a thing quite settled and ordained by the laws of nature and Providence, that anybody who said or did or thought otherwise must be inevitably and of necessity wrong.”

Sound like anyone we know?

Then there’s this long passage describing a meeting of disgruntled apprentices joining to complain about and try to usurp their masters. Picture the apprentices as white supremacists and Tea Party people, their “Tyrant Masters” as the Obama administration, the Lord Mayor Obama himself, and substitute “American customs” for “English customs” and you have a pretty accurate analysis of what’s been going down in the U.S. these past years to lead us to our present disaster. And keep in mind that this was written across the seas in 1841!

“The Captain told them how under the Constitution, the apprentices had in times gone by, had frequent holidays of right, broken people’s heads by scores, defied their masters, nay, even achieved some glorious murders in the streets, which privileges had gradually been wrested from them, and in all which noble aspirations they were not restrained; how the degrading checks imposed upon them were unquestionably attributable to the innovating spirit of the times, and how they united therefore to resist all change, except such changes as would restore those good old English customs, by which they would stand or fall.

After illustrating the wisdom of going backward, by reference to the crab and the not unfrequented practice of the mule and donkey, he described their general objects: vengeance on their Tyrant Masters (of whose grievous and insupportable oppression no apprentice could entertain a moment’s doubt) and the restoration of their ancient rights and holidays.… Then he described the oath to resist and obstruct the Lord Mayor…”

Interesting, yes?

And then this inspired passage. As the Captain and his motley crew leave the meeting, a blind man holds the door as they exit. The Captain passes through the door last and the blind man whispers out of his hearing:

“Good night, noble captain. Farewell, brave general. Bye, bye, illustrious commander. Good luck go with you for a –conceited, bragging, empty-headed, duck-legged idiot.”

These the words I long to say when our own small-handed, small-hearted, self-obsessed idiot is finally impeached and walks out of the Oval Office. And though Dickens’ reminder that such fools we have had always had amongst us and there is nothing new under the sun, I keep returning to “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.” The stakes are so much higher and the numbers so much larger and the power to do harm so much greater and the things under the sun with less and less a protective ozone layer. We need to get this conceited, bragging tweeter out now. Before it’s too late.

May it be so!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Unnatural Disaster

The 5th day of smoke from the fires up north and it's astounding how wide the range is. I’m writing this from a hotel near Yosemite (workshop here tomorrow) and I can still smell it.

At first I didn’t understand why everyone was staying indoors and wearing masks. Didn’t smell much different than sitting around a campfire. But someone enlightened me: smoke from a campfire or wildfire is still not great to inhale, but this smoke is something different altogether because houses and cars have burned and that means toxins from plastics and rubber and such have been released. And that stuff is bad for you.

And that got me thinking about our toxic president and his cronies. Hardly a day goes by without him making a cruel, dangerous, hateful comment or action and nothing is spared— he’s letting Nazi rallies and crazed shooters and Wall Street greed go unchecked while refusing help to American hurricane victims, trying to shut down millions of American citizen’s affordable health care, turning the Dreamer’s Act into a nightmare, put a coal guy high up in EPA, an idiot heading education, keeps threatening nuclear war, etc., etc. and yet again etc. This is not like a natural wildfire that’s unpleasant to breathe. These are invisible toxins that are leaking into every breath we take and no one is immune.

Last November, my spirits went down to 40 below zero and I simply could not imagine how I’d get through these next four years. But after the Women’s March in January, that turned around and I felt this as the wake-up call we all needed, the thermometer that showed us some surprise temperatures in our country and then the collective determination to turn it around. And that spirit has pretty much held for the last 9 months.

But the recent turn of events—hurricanes, fires, mass shootings, pestilence—make me feel alarmed beyond my comfort level that our leadership is like the 5th Horseman of the Apocalypse instead of the wise parent helping us get through. I thought I could retreat comfortably into Bach on the piano, my hall-of-mirrors Facebook group, my oasis-in-the-dessert school that remains a happy place for children and adults while daily looking the hard issues in the face, playing jazz with my cohorts (we performed at a school today—fun!!!) and of course, the comfort of family and friends. But who am I kidding? The toxins are leaking in all the cracks and crevices and not even Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah can laugh them entirely away.

Thanks for letting me say this out loud. Tomorrow I teach another workshop and as always, will do everything in my power to keep fun at the forefront married to deep reflection and renewed determination to tell the truth to children and ourselves, but to “say it with music” so the spirit stays buoyant. But every once in a while, you just gotta give a little voice to despair and hopelessness and alarm. There. I’m done.