Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Happy Thank You More Please

The birthday wishes and party echoes on and before it fades to silence, one more coda here. At the party, I gave a little talk at the beginning, read my poems and intended to give my main talk at the end. But it felt like enough words had been spoken and it was time for cake. I thought I might read it after the music, but the party took its own natural course. And so I include it below. A bit long for a Blog, but considering it took me 60 years to write it, it feels right to post it. Here we go:

60th Birthday Talk
None of us make it this far without the unfailing support of faithful friends. In addition to the tangible help and encouragement I've felt from every one here, I’ve had three more friends that have served as the ongoing threads in the fabric of my adult life. I met all three of them in college and they remain my closest companions. Their names are Orff, Jazz and Zen.

So Zen. Though I’m not sure my 104 year-old teacher would still claim me as his student, in my mind, I’m still a Zen practitioner, having sat zazen most every day since I was 22 years old. Zen reached into the corners of my spiritual interest that my Jewish ancestry and pseudo-Christian upbringing couldn’t touch, a hands-on approach to religion that eschewed dogma and sidestepped faith and asked me to get straight to the heart of the matter and experience for myself what it means to feel that transcendent force of the universe run through my meager flesh and blood. And thus, the physical practice of meditation and the discipline of group practice that indeed sometimes melted away the borders of the skin and my small mind and swept me into the arms of a larger presence that goes by the name of God or Buddha Nature or the Spirit.

Every time I devoted myself to a week of self-regeneration, I indeed came back renewed and I am ashamed to say that it is the combination of dreading the early-morning wake-ups and rigorous discipline and the justification that I couldn’t afford the time that has made my a very poor Zen student. But a decade in the 70’s of once or twice a year sesshin retreats instilled a habit that has served me well my whole life. My robes are torn and don’t fit as they used to, but they still hang in my closet.

Then, jazz. I often tell the story of how I saw a nationally famous Orff teacher do a workshop in 1978 and even just three-years into teaching, I thought  “I can do that. And I think that I can do it better.” I think some part of us knows what we were put here to do and moments like that are one of the voices urging us to claim it. Conversely, I once went to hear my piano teacher Art Lande at the Great American Music Hall and remember standing outside looking at his name on the marquee. I tried to imagine my name up there some day and no matter how much I squinted and squirmed, I couldn’t make the letters form. Some part of me knew that I didn’t have the training, the talent, the early-childhood musical brain connections to make it in the world of jazz musicians and that even if I had had, I had started much too late, playing my first ragtime piano at 21 years old and my first lesson with Art at 24 years old.

But just because I knew my name would never be next to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett didn’t mean I should stop trying to play jazz piano. And so with a random practice approach, but tenacity to keep trying in my living room all these years, I got good enough to have the nerve to organize a concert every couple of years. As far as I knew, no one in the audience got hurt or irrevocably damaged. And that has proved another practice that has paid its dividends far beyond whatever I imagined. First and foremost, in the past couple of years accompanying my 80 and 90 year old singers at the Jewish Home with my mother sitting at my side, sometimes immersed in the music with a face of pure bliss, sometimes furiously conducting or dancing with her hands. And then performing at various Orff events and occasional house concerts and people afterwards letting me know I made them cry—and not because I played so poorly!

Some part of me still harbors the fantasy, “When I grow up, I want to be a jazz piano player.” Playing alone when everything lines up and you get to the place that words can’t reach is happiness enough, but on the rare occasions when I publicly perform in a trio, the pleasure is tripled. Jazz for me is the perfect meeting point of the body, grounded in the earthy rhythms of the drum and tapping toes, the mind, feeling its way through the tangle of complex harmonies on the piano, and the heart, singing its passion through the horn or the voice, the raw beauty of the full spectrum of emotion, joy in every sorrowful note and suffering in each triumphant tone.

And finally, Orff. Clearly the center of my little corner of creation, the craft which has taken the bulk of my effort and energy and used every one of the strange combination of small talents given to me. 36 years in the same school, some 30,000 classes with kids, a few thousand workshops with adults in some 39 countries spread throughout every inhabited continent—and still going with all of it with no end immediately in sight. In terms of recognition within this small but powerful world, I’ve probably climbed about as high on the ladder as one can go. In terms of actual accomplishment, the next class with kids is ready to beat me down to a proper humility, knowing there is still so much I could and should do better. That ladder has no top or bottom.

I just saw a pretty good airplane movie with a dubious title “Happy Thank You More Please.” This work indeed has been the happiest of happiness for me and I am so very grateful for all it has given back. Not only the energy and discoveries and breakthroughs and growth of the kids, but equally, the remarkable moments with adult strangers who become instant friends. Indeed, some have become actual friends, the kind you write to and keep in touch with and have long talks with about everything, but what I mean by friends here is neither the “Let’s go to the movies” kind nor the Facebook kind. It really is a category unto itself, what happens when with the first 15 minutes of a class, you’ve held hands, massaged shoulders, laughed, dance, sung and played together. This creates a kind of musical communion and epiphany faster in a quarter of an hour than most people experience with others in a year of casual conversation. And of course, it has been a deep happiness for me to have had the chance to travel as I have and come to each country now with three hats—teachers, student and occasional tourist. And now I can add a fourth hat, as I reunite with these new-found friends in just about every place I go. The only appropriate response to it all is "Thank you." And while part of me is nervous about counting the years left and sad to think that too little remain, I also humbly entreat the Universe with the final two words of the title: “More Please.”

There’s more than just Zen, Jazz and Orff. A lifetime of reading, for example, equally excited by the ideas of non-fiction, stories of novels and the images, emotion and musicality of poetry. And alongside a lot of reading has come a lot of writing. 38 years of unbroken journal keeping, scores of articles, seven books and more coming, my online Travel Blog. I said that music reaches the place that words can't, but words can also touch some places that music can't and I love them both.

And then there’s the life of family and all my stumbling efforts, phenomenal failures and occasional good moments as a father, son, husband, brother —and soon to come, grandfather! And then all the other hats we humans wear—friend, colleague, acquaintance, neighbor, citizen. On my behalf, the best I can say is I’m faithful to trying to keep them alive and honest and perpetually falling short. But Orff, Zen and Jazz, the three disciplines and practices that have been such constant companions and such demanding teachers, help get me up each morning to work out my inch of progress. 60 years of inching progress seems to have reaped some rewards. Not quite mastery, but enough competence to dare to publicly share. A deep bow to all three and may we stay together in the years to come. 

Happy. Thank You. More Please.

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