Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 1,000 Faces of Resurrection


It’s Easter Sunday. I’m not thinking of church, Judy Garland or the Easter bunny. Instead Joseph Campbell comes to mind, the man who wrote:

“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change."

Joseph Campbell first came to notice in 1949 when he published his ground-breaking book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  He caught our attention with the above quote and then spent the rest of his illustrious career as teacher and author showing how the world’s myths are not old fanciful stories, but living teachings alive in us today if we know how to interpret them.

His message was simple: all the world’s myths arise from common energies in our bodies and minds, common observations of the world we live in and our common need to make sense of it all and give it meaning through the poetry of myth and the dance of ritual. If we could see through the details of each story and recognize that our local deity is not in opposition to the folks who live across the river, but the same god with a different face and name, we can make a first bold step to our shared humanity and a transcendant religion that includes all and opposes none.

His work came to a wider notice in the mid-80’s when he was interviewed in a 6-part series on television with Bill Moyers and some folks recognized it as a teaching for our time. With several thousand years behind us of fluid myths hardened to religious dogma, misinterpreted teachings which gave permission to slay the infidels in the name of our particular tribal god, it was time to back off and see the common threads that connected them all. The advent of global communication, anthropological studies, shared literature made such a compartive study possible back in the 1940’s, as well as Campbell’s good sense to climb the shoulders of such folks as James Frazer, Leo Frobenius, Claude Levi-Straus, Carl Jung, Heinrich Zimmer and others to get a larger overview. Raised Catholic, he was weary of the arrogance that Christians had the true God and Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus and others the false one. And yet more impatient with the parade of Christian sects—Catholics, Protestants, each then subdivided further with the Greek Orthodox or Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and on and on, each claiming their little piece of the whole as the Gospel Truth.

And so back to Easter. Campbell deftly shows how the Resurrection story of Jesus Christ was but one version of a common motif in myths worldwide. It comes from the agragarian culture dependent on seeds growing to plants to flower to fruit and dying back into the ground, to be resurrected next Spring. Since this grand cycle of the seasons grants us our very life, it becomes a spiritual story humanized and made palatable and understandable in anthropomorphic terms. Birth, death and resurrection is all around us— from the seasonal circle to the moon cycle to the small death of sleep at night and small birth of arising each morning. The Buddhists take it one step smaller, asking us to attend to our death in each exhale and birth in each inhale.

If you look at the world’s myths, you’ll find countless stories of some kind of death and resurrection. If you look out the window of your garden, you’ll see the same. My own vote for one of the most powerful artistic renderings of this is the movie Black Orpheus. That last scene with the kids dancing an Sugarloaf Mountain, ready to begin the cycle anew, never fails to reduce me to tears and lift my heart to the skies.

Meanwhile, no matter what your upbringing, belief, faith or preferred story, I wish you the remembrance of new life and hope and the wisdom and compassion to recognize the ways others come to the same renewal. And thanks to Joseph Campbell for his helping us to come to our senses. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Better Than an Orff Workshop


Anyone following this Blog knows that I often paint Paradise in the colors and shapes of an Orff workshop. The buzz in the air, the swirl of motion, the euphonious sounds coming from voices, skins, woods and metals, the physical contact, laughter, serious quiet moments and more make it the heaven that’s more than good enough for me.

But truth be told, these workshops are often in drafty and echo-ey gyms with no windows and bad lighting, a table of snacks that might include donuts and those earth-killing tiny plastic water bottles and people bonded together through a very specific interest— music education. Still a lot of magic happens, but if I were given the omnipotent power to name the ideal Heaven on Earth, I’d have to make a few changes.

But this morning I went to the New Smyrna Beach Farmer’s Market and as I often feel, this is worthy of Dante’s and Bosch’s most vivid imagination as a model for earthly bliss. The folks that go there are a varied bunch, tied together by our common need for food, sustenance and sociability in the market place. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, alongside the nuts, dried fruits, just-baked bread, cheeses, occasional meats and fish, herbs, spices, each with their tasty samples and convivial farmer giving you the biography of the mango she grew. There is a booth with folks spinning (spinning! as in the Rumpelstiltskin story!), a lone musician singing karaoke with himself and his pre-recorded back-up band, kids gathered with Easter baskets ready to storm the lawn strewn with goodies. The sun is shining, the temperature perfect and the breeze soothing rather than chilly. Not much to improve on the scene, except perhaps a bunch of Orff instruments in the corner available for jamming, a larger live band and some dancing, a moment when the whole market might pause and sing a song together.

When the news darkens our hearts, the image of poverty and war and relentless explosive violence keeps coming at us from the screens, let’s just unplug and stroll down to the local Farmer’s Market, sample a ripe tomato, talk to our neighbors, take in the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and remember how simple it is for us to get along here on this planet, to thrive, to savor, to celebrate the miracle of food growing and people gathering and life in all its abundance.

And then go to the Orff workshop. I have one next Saturday. Sign-up now!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Brain Rule No. 12

EXPLORATION: We are powerful and natural explorers—  Babies are the model of how we learn, actively testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

So wrote John Medina in his book Brain Rules, ending with this 12th rule that pretty much sums it up. We are born to be curious and the brain is designed to make sense of our explorations— noting pattern, making predictions. drawing conclusions. Even as a young teacher (so many, many years ago!), I was talking about teaching as “leading the children to the edge of discovery” and planning my classes accordingly. I believed in children’s innate urge to figure things out and was rewarded many times over as indeed they did. And they still do and I still am.

I liked that Mr. Medina chose babies as the pinnacle of the learning process and after a week with 16-month old Zadie, I’m reminded why.  We jaded adults need the promise of a hike to Machu Picchu or a safari in Kenya to feel like we’re going on an adventure, but Zadie just opens her eyes each morning and the world offers itself to her as a grand escapade, a fabulous journey that begins with whatever she notices first. She might make a mountain of pillows or arrange blocks on the floor or wander down the hall, stopping to look into each room and exclaim “Wowie!” It doesn’t take much to entertain her.

Repetition is a big part of her play and though adults can tire quickly of the games, it all is essential to her brain growth. There’s a lot of opening the drawer and closing the drawer, giving you something and taking it back, putting the two Legos together and pulling them apart. If you’re going to start a “Peek-a-boo” game, be ready to settle in for the long haul— 25 peek-a-boo minimum. If she closes the page of the book you’re reading and you react with “Whoops!” and she laughs, you can kiss that story goodbye. The new game is you opening the page, her closing it, feigning surprise and the reward? That laugh of sheer delight.

My daughter and son-in-law are such wise parents, having boycotted Toys-R-Us and been cautious about electronic addiction. Her toys are a few stuffies, some musical egg shakers, a rubber ball, some Legos, simple things that ask more of her imagination to animate them and less of batteries and electrical outlets. Our hopes is that she will grow up like her grandparents did, with an inner life rich in fantasy play, a lifelong habit of entertaining herself and finding large possibilities in small things. 

Of course, she’ll be fascinated by the movement in the i-Pad and find worthy things to explore there in good time— no way around that. But my hope is that the simple fascination with the egret at the outlet, water lapping on her legs, sand, pail and shovel, will never be overwhelmed by the flash and dazzle of the over-hyped screen. A difficult prayer for our times, but one well-worth making as I see how happy she is each moment of the day surrounded by loving adults, simple toys and the natural world. Happy, that is, except when she has to take a nap and miss some of the excitement. 

Like now. Time to go sing her a song. With my simple acoustic ukelele. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Baby Scat

Playful babble before coherent speech. This is the example I always give in my workshops illustrating the way we learn everything— a period of free exploration, messin’ around, getting a rough draft feel for the skill at hand before settling into the precision of vocabulary, grammar, syntax. Alfred North Whitehead calls it the stage of Romance, a necessary prelude to the stuff schools care about. It’s the kindergarten before the first grade, the playing with blocks before engineering school, the scribble-scrabble before the accurate portrayal of a house, the free play on the recorder before Hot Cross Buns, the courting before the marriage. From that foundation, we’re ready for specific techniques, conceptual and systematic ideas, mastered repertoire, but if we skip to those too soon, they’ll fall short.

Whitehead simply noted Nature’s way. Not only does every baby have to babble before talking and totter before walking, but as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (go back to your high school biology notes) suggests, our whole species may have had a long period of musical proto-speech before settling into a language that communicates more specifically. That is Stephen Mithen’s theory in his book The Singing Neanderthals and a fascinating study it is. But not more interesting than the real deal— hanging around 16-month Zadie as she babbles her way toward an eventual Shakespeare term paper.

I’m having fun trying to teach her a couple of new words, but more fun yet just letting her sing and trying to echo her phrases and scat syllables. Not easy! And sing is accurate, as her gibber and jabber constantly leaps between speaking and clearly-pitched high singing tones. I wonder if anyone has recorded the babble of babies from different cultures and noted the difference in phonemes according to the mother tongue. If not, I got myself a Doctoral Thesis.

Whitehead goes on to suggest that the third stage of learning is Synthesis, when one returns to the freedom and exploration of Romance, only now armed with “classified ideas and precise techniques.” I imagine going from the freedom of the toddler sung prattle to the learning of specific songs with rhythmic and melodic accuracy and precise diction and then arriving at Louis Armstrong’s free-wheeling scat singing, where the work and the play, the precision and the freedom, are inextricably one. Or from scribble-scrabble in art to realism to modern art. It’s an idea that makes sense to me and has informed my teaching profoundly. Each lesson with a period of messin’ around and exploration that leads to a specific song or concept or piece or steps that is practiced nd eventually mastered and that ends with the invitation to create something new— Romance, Precision and Synthesis wrapped together in one package of engaged learning.

I asked Zadie to comment and here is how she expressed it:

Gay go go gully gully, Ba ba bo yo yo . Ow wowie wowie uh-uh-oh-oh.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Wow!

I remember when some of our friends started having kids. We who were still child-free  used to make fun of their endless discussions about diaper-changing and rolling over and such. “What happened to all those deep college conversations about Sartre, Camus, trees in the forest and reincarnation?’ we lamented. But of course, once our children arrived, we were right there with the amazement of “I think she smiled today! Or maybe it was just gas.”

All this a warning prelude to faithful blog readers: Zadie has arrived. For the next five days, there will be nothing but grandparent verbal dotage and reporting on all the new delights of our 16-month old darling who we haven’t seen since Thanksgiving. Then she was just walking. Now she runs from place to place, dances while I play ukelele, touches my nose when I say the word and most endearing of all, walks from room to room and pauses to say her favorite word out of her five or six word vocabulary—“Wow!”

Off we go to the beach. We take her shoes off and she feels the Florida sand in-between her toes. “Wow!” and take off running full tilt towards the water shrieking in delight. Feels the water wash over and stops. “Wow!” Sits in the sand and scoops some on her aunt’s belly. “Wow.” Swings in the baby swing until she starts rubbing her eyes to tell us it’s naptime. “Wow.” Quick stop at the market and put her in the driving shopping cart. “Wow!” Finally back home and down for a nap. No more “Wow!” Now it’s “Waaah!” The world is so full of Wow, why miss any of it with a nap?

For the record, her other words are “Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), yes, mama, uh-oh, nana (for banana)” and a sign-language tapping knuckles together for “more.” My goal is to increase her vocabulary to include “Pop-pop (or Grandpa), ukelele, bagpipe” and the lyrics to Pete Seeger’s “Abiyoyo” (her spontaneous singing already close to that). If she masters those, then maybe we’ll add “existentialism, reincarnation, sustainable development.” I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Long, Long Day


How many lives can one live in a day? Yesterday started at 6 am with a ride through the snow-dusted streets of Salzburg to the airport. Such elegance in every nook-and-cranny in this city soaked through with history, culture and aesthetics. But lest I be accused of too much romanticism and put too much weight on beauty’s shoulders when it comes to human affairs, I sometimes need to remind myself of the brutality and sheer evil that also walked these streets a mere 75 years ago. I stay with my notions that beauty, art and elegance matter in the kind of culture I admire, but underneath it all is a savagery that can emerge at the drop of a political leader. A truth I’d rather not face, but must.

A short plane ride to Vienna, landing briefly in the world where Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and more created such remarkable music that continues to pull the strings of our heart. Also the home of Freud and the waltz and the sachertorte dessert. And the place where I heard my name called out at the gate and found out I had been upgraded to first class for the 9-hour plane trip ahead!! Score!!

And so with a chef in a chef’s hat serving lunch, a wide reclining seat and a coffee with ice cream and whipped cream, I settled back to enter three worlds on my larger screen personal console. Two classic films that held up bigtime: From Here to Eternity (Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine) and The Apartment (Jack Lemmon, Shirley McClaine, Fred MacMurray)— two human-sized dramas with human-sized conflicts and resolutions. Then Cloud Atlas, a sprawling mythic drama ping-ponging between the distant past, recent past, present and future and achieving absolutely nothing (except the part with the Seniors escaping from the home). I had brought this book with me hoping to be swept up and threw it down in disappointment. So I hoped the movie would get me back to it and now I can safely say, “Anyone want my copy?” Ugh.

Since the flight covered the waking hours of the day, the reclining bed was not of much use. Though not complaining here! Landed in Toronto with six hours until my next flight and ended up getting whisked away from the airport by a friend and having a bonus catch-up dinner nearby. Good use of the time. Back to the airport with time to spare, but they were experimenting with a new connection policy that wasn’t working and I became part of the growing angry and anxious mob waiting at customs and wondering if they’d make their flight. At this point, it was 2 a.m. Salzburg-time and the sleep-need starting to kick in. So I took out my Ukelele and starting strumming it standing on line, softly singing the U.S. Customs Blues:

They’re makin’ us wait here and ain’t no one tellin’ us news
They’re makin’ us wait here and ain’t no one tellin’ us news
So I’m standin’ in line singin’ the U.S. Custom blues.

I’m been travelin’ 18 hours, so you know I been payin’ my dues
I’m been travelin’ 18 hours, so you know I been payin’ my dues
Next we got to line up at Security and take off our belts and our shoes.

Etc. Finally got on the plane with two empty seats—score!—and ready to lie down. Then at the last minute, in comes the big-shouldered man and his son to sit next to me. But I slept anyway and awoke in Orlando, Florida, astonished to think that the person driving through Salzburg in the early morning and the one peeling off his jacket in the late evening and getting into the cab driven by the Jamaican cab driver to the airport hotel experienced both on the same calendar day.

Next morning, out on the strip mall in humid warm weather, breakfast at The Waffle House, sitting at the counter in a place thrown together with spit and duct tape next to some folks from the Harley Motorcycle gang and watching 12 blue-shirted plastic-gloved overweight workers slinging hash and shouting out orders. "It ain't Europe here. Welcome home, son."

Now back to the airport for the rental car and off to the beach to meet my family. As I wrote in Facebook: “From the Spring snows of Salzburg to the Summer sands of New Smyrna Beach in one long, long day. It’s a weird and wonderful world.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Flexible Rules


Apparently, Winter was not impressed with my poetic welcome to Spring yesterday. I imagine it flexing its muscle with a tough guy “Oh, yeah?!” posturing and dropping snow on the first day of Spring with a "Whatcha gonna do about it?!" atittude. What do calendar days mean to a weather front? Apparently, not much. The Vernal Equinox is but a mere suggestion and Winter is well within its rights to hang on for a bit longer. Maybe even for two months, if its pleases. I’ve heard tell of snow in Salzburg in May.

After all these years coming to Austria and Germany, I found out something new this trip. Retirement is a fixed age and if you think you’d like to work past it, well, too bad. You can’t. Maybe be a consultant or teach a short summer course, but when your birthday hits, the number decides for you. The rule is fixed. (Though with some flexibility as it recently was raised in Germany—I think from 65 to 67).

Today was my last class of my special two weeks with the Special Course. How I loved it! All of it! If this was my full time job, the rules would dictate just a few more years. What a shame that would be. I have more energy than I ever have had and hopefully with something more polished and deepened to offer. Why send me off to the pasture because of a number? Well, luckily no such rule exists at my school and while some might wish it— especially in my case!—I’m ready to follow the lead of my Zen teacher and keep teaching until I’m 106. Then maybe take a short break and take up lawn bowling.

In today’s class, we reviewed the simple curriculum I’ve helped develop for preschool through elementary and middle school and time and again, I kept accenting, “These are flexible guidelines, not fixed rules. You’re welcome to break them, but be prepared to defend your choice. Like when you all just performed your arrangements on Orff instruments. Some broke the rules I set forth, but they sounded interesting to my ear (following my Duke Ellington criteria—‘if it sounds good, it is good!’)."

So whether you’re a stubborn Winter God getting in your last licks past your appointed deadline, a stubborn music teacher wanting to go beyond the recommended retirement age or a musician straying outside the tried-and-true, rules are meant to guide, not limit. If followed to the letter, life is predictably boring. If abandoned altogether, life is just a bit too chaotic for our taste. Know the rules, use them, know when to break them, make up a few of your own.

But Winter, stay the hell out of Florida! I’m ready for some beach time in two days!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Bloom in the Branch

Though the mountains are dusted with new snow and I wear my winter wool hat while biking, the calendar says Spring has arrived and the returning birds and sprouting wild onion flowers agree. I heard them and I saw them while biking along the Salzach River yesterday and I realized how silent the winter world had been and black and white and grey. Now the song in my heart was also coming from the tops of trees and the forest floor was dotted with small purple and white flowers. Lovely.

My Iranian friends celebrated No Rooz yesterday, the Persian New Year so poetically aligned with Spring, the time of renewed vows and hope and gratitude. Their table is covered with ceremonial items symbolizing rebirth, beauty and health, wisdom and patience, affluence, the sunrise and love. They jumped over fire (I did this two years ago myself) and welcomed Spring in other ritual ways. In our modern world of cold machines that know neither winter’s silence, spring’s renewal, summer’s heat or fall’s color (except on screensavers), it’s a good idea to remind nature that we’re paying attention.

Spring in San Francisco is a quiet affair, mostly announced by the magnolia blooms in January, plum’s in February and cherry’s in March. No big contrast with our mild winter, no sense of relief from the bitter cold and dark, dark days. But still it’s there in our ancient cellular memory, alongside a renewed interest in fertility-related desires. And a reminder from the natural world to not lose faith, that the bloom is patiently waiting in the bare branch to burst forth in glorious color.

Yesterday, I played some musical examples from our school CD’s for my students here at the Orff Institut. We heard 8th grader Shane singing “Dance Me to the End of Love” and as I tried to tell them Shane’s story, my voice started cracking and tears came to my eyes. Cellular memory again as I described giving Shane’s graduation speech that began, “Shane was one of the most difficult students I ever had.” In both the speech and the story, I related how Shane seemed constantly against the grain of the music class from three-years old to eleven until he got interested on his own in alternative rock and suddenly came alive in the music classes as well. At the end of the speech, with Shane at my side in front of some 300 parents and kids, I said something like: “We danced together clumsily for 9 years, stepping on each other’s feet, but at the end of the dance was love. (see song title above). You taught me never to give up on a student, that with sufficient faith, patience, the constant light of the sun and the daily watering in the class, the bloom will come to the branch.” As indeed it did.

My Persian friends are waiting patiently for the light to return to their country’s government (as are we all for our own!), my music teacher friends waiting for the testing madness to run its course and arts come to blossom in schools, we all know friends or family or parts of ourself that are frozen cold and need thawing, desparate for more bird song and flower bloom. Spring has arrived to remind us that all is decay and renewal, that the bare branch lies inside the bloom and the bloom inside the bare branch. 
Time, light, warmth and water are all that's needed to make miracles. Happy Spring!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Commute Through Paradise


It is said that trauma lodges itself in your cellular memory and can be called up when similar situations present themselves. I believe the same is true for our moments of deep happiness. Today I took the old bike ride from the Orff Institute to the village of Anif, the place I lived for six weeks my first time teaching the Special Course in Salzburg. As I passed each familiar landmark, I felt a wave of profound joy and contentment spread over me. Not nostalgia, but a reliving on a cellular level the same happiness I had back then. There was the Sound of Music pavilion at the entrance to Hellbrun Park, then the tree-lined path like the birth canal to Paradise, the cage in the zoo where I greeted the lions each morning going out and evening coming back, the small gate that opens to the vista of surrounding mountains (now wholly born into Heaven!), the row of quaint houses and artists’ studios, the church where the conductor Herbert von Karajan is buried and then the farmhouse where I stayed. Every day for six weeks, I biked this 20 minute ride back and forth, in rain, sun, sleet or snow and sometimes all of the above in one day.

What a glorious way to start and end the day. How I pitied the people who commuted on a trafficked freeway to their isolated office cubicles, with mountain scenes on their screensavers and scheduled trips to the gym. Here each day began with exercise blending with a healthy dose of beauty, more exercise and beauty and fun and connection at work dancing in circles and then ended with another infusion of of transport that got the heart pumping and the breath going on paths and through fields that moved your heart and took your breath away. A whole life lived fully in each hour of the day, nothing to recover from or compensate for. What a fine time that was.

I always mildly regretted that in spite of a life of constant traveling, I never lived abroad for a year or two. This was the closest I came to that feeling, everything fresh and new and exciting and filled with feeling of living in a mythic world, carried by a new culture and a physical beauty in the surroundings that daily took my breath away. And ten years later, it’s all still here, untouched by the claws of commerce. Amazing.

Herb Caen, that colorful San Francisco newspaper columnist, once said, “When I die and am admitted through the Pearly Gates, I’ll look around and say, “It’s okay. But it ain’t San Francisco!” I agree with him about that, but let me add: “Not bad. But not as good as the bike ride to and from Anif.”

The Tiger's Whisker


I just spent another two days of my life doing what I seem born to do— play, sing, dance, laugh, challenge and have fun with a group of strangers, armed only with the body, voice, imagination and a few silly little rhymes. Amazing what one can do with “criss-cross applesauce,” “choco-late,” and “Johnny Whoops!” Add in a couple of simple welcome songs and dances, some small instrumentsin a circle, a 3-note tune in 7 beats, a bunch of sticks and plastic tubes and an Estonian lullaby sung with heads on each other’s backs and you got yourself a good day. Everything the news doesn’t report is present in the room. Everything the news does report is dissolved and washed away in the healing power of tone, movement and patterned vibration. Thanks to 60 lovely teachers in Munich for your beautiful singing, open minds and hearts, good ideas and moving music.

But during a discussion time, the sadness of our educational practices and policies (and remember, I was in Germany. This is a universal 'our,' with of course, many commendable exceptions) leaked in as one teacher asked what to do with young teenagers reluctant to participate, coming into class with slumped shoulders and eyes ready to roll, armored to protect themselves from shame and ridicule by peers and teachers. I’ve lived my life in the world of “get it right the first time” and it’s mostly true that the teenagers I teach are not shut down because they’ve gone to a school that takes care to know them, see them, encourage them, praise them, inspire them to take risks and creates a safe community to do so. And yes, some protection and rolled eyes as part of their initiation into young adulthood, but mostly overruled by their seasoned innocence and enthusiasm that has been left intact. But of course, I know the characters she described and know how immensely difficult it is to begin such a music program with kids at 12, 13, 14 years old.

To answer her question, I launched into a short version of the folk tale of The Tiger’s Whisker. A woman’s husband returns from a war spiritually shattered and closed down. She can’t reach him and in despair, seeks counsel from the Wise Woman. She is told that there is a magic potion, but first she has to get a whisker from a tiger to add to the brew. So she goes as close as she dares to the tiger’s cave with a bowl of food and leaves it and runs away. Each day, she puts the food a little bit closer. After a month or so, she gets to the point where she can hold the bowl while the tiger eats. And then one day, she pulls out a whisker. Returning to the Wise Woman with the whisker, she asks for the potion. “There is no potion, “the Wise Woman confesses. “But if you have had the patience and courage to pull out a tiger’s whisker, surely you can do the same for your husband. Just offer your love each day until he finally feels safe enough to open again to the world.”

So many kids have been wounded by a culture that doesn’t love them, nurture them or praise them sufficiently, but all it takes is one courageous teacher to haul them ashore to safety and give them the tools— like music, for example— to re-claim and express their heart’s vision and pleasure. As mentioned before, that hasn’t exactly been my work and frankly, I don’t know if I’m capable of it. Perhaps working with Youth at Risk or in prisons or refugee camps could be the next chapter for me. But for now, my job is to keep the doors open from the beginning and help shield the children from the slings and arrows of unthinking and often downright cruel public policy.

Meanwhile, my deepest admiration for all those who daily bring food to the tiger and find the courage to pluck the whisker.

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Father's Gloves


I am walking through the Spring snows of Salzburg dressed in love. On my hands, my father’s winter gloves he left behind six years ago. On my head, my wife’s woolen hat I snuck from the hall armoire while packing for this trip (shh! don’t tell!). My winter coat was a spontaneous gift from my son-in-law when he bought himself a new one, the Argentinian sweater underneath a gift from my daughter. The shirt is a Christmas gift from my other daughter, the T-shirt I bought last summer up in Northern Michigan. The scarf is a present from Orff folks in China, the pants courtesy of the kind Gap employee who was closing up shop and unlocked the door for me and found the perfect pants in five minutes (this the night before my trip!). My boots I bought for Salzburg 10 years ago, re-cobbled a few times by our local shoemaker. I won’t mention the unmentionables.

And so I am a walking Facebook, the status of my friends updated on my body as I walk. We often tell those we love that we will think of them always, but mostly we don’t. Except sometimes. Like now, as I inventory each article of clothing and remember each person while walking through the fairyland of Salzburg made yet more magical by the floating flakes. I am warmed twice over, once by the familiar fabric and once by the fond remembrance of friends and family. I would wish each of them walking by my side (well, maybe not the shoemaker and Gap employee) and others too who didn’t clothe me today.

But no need to be greedy. It’s enough that I thought of them, that they helped warm both my heart and my body and that I have the good fortune to walk in wonder, clothed in remembrance.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Point of View

Woke up to yet more snow. It’s March 15th (the ides of March!) and shouldn’t it be Spring already? I have to walk the half-hour to the Orff Institut with my suitcase to be ready to get to the Munich train after class and it’s snowing. By my usual standards of expecting the World to wrap itself around my needs and desires, I should be annoyed.

But last night walking to dinner in the Old Town, I found myself singing Christmas Carols and “Shezam!”—instant transformation! Fact is, Christmas in Peru wasn’t quite the image I have stored from childhood and I kind of missed it. So why not have it in March? The snowflakes under the sparkling lights, the castle up the hill and beautiful old buildings left and right, the cozy fire in the restauarant and candles on tables, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and “Silent Night” (composed a few blocks away here in Salzburg!) ringing in my ears— it was Christmas in my heart. All that was missing was the same spirit in the people I passed by, who I imagined were less than enchanted and  thinking, “Hey, Spring! We’re ready! Enough with the snow!”

So this morning, I’ll set off with my suitcase belting out “Winter Wonderland” and “Deck the Halls” as I pass my bewildered fellow pedestrians and make some delicious lemonade from the lemons of the weather— or rather hot cider with cloves. And if the weather should change again, I’ll be happy to change to whisling Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring.” Hey, World, I got lots of songs. Give me what you will and I’ll find the right one to change my point of view and be right there with you!

Meanwhile, note to self. Put spending an actual Christmas in Salzburg at the top of the old Bucket List. A different kind of magic than Machu Picchu and not so strenuous.

Lost and Found


• Time spent looking for my eyeglasses case: 6 minutes
   Found: Under a book.

• Time spent looking for the ziplock bag I brought on the plane and was positive I didn’t
   throw away: 9 minutes
   Found: In the pocket of my fleece vest.

• Time spent emptying my backpack looking for my gloves outside in the freezing cold
  while talking to a student: 5 minutes
  Found: In my windbreaker pocket. (The student suggested I check there.)

• Time spent looking for my wristwatch: 4 minutes
  Found: On my wrist.

That’s 24 minutes of my life lost looking for lost things. 24 minutes of stress and frustration that weakened my immune system and damaged my self-esteem. 24 minutes that could have been spent contemplating the perfect original nature of all sentient beings. 24 minutes I might have spent in company with the Buddha nature which is timeless, unchangeable, unmeasurable.

Instead, I’m hanging out with that everyday self who is indeed subject to the ravages of time, is changing— for the worse when it comes to keeping track of things— and whose change is measurable— see 24 minutes above. It really is sobering. I’ve slowly come to peace with reading glasses and avoiding noisy restaurants and a few other indignities of the aging process, but this is really starting to alarm me. Not just once, but several times a day, that maddening moment when I stop with furrowed brow and wonder, “Now where could that be?”

All set to post this, but the Hotel wireless is asking for the password. Anyone remember where I put it?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Discomfort Zone

Today I biked in the snow. Not something that happens very often in San Francisco. Stuck out my tongue and drank in the flakes while swerving around a few ice patches. Arrived with pants splattered with mud, backpack frosted with white, wet gloves and chilled fingers— and yet happy as a kid playing…well, out in the first snow.

Before coming to Salzburg, I looked at the weather predictions and groaned. I was happily welcoming Spring in San Francisco, the plums having peaked, cherries on their way and first leaves on the deciduous trees I pass each day to school. Why was I going to Salzburg where Winter still ruled? Who wants to be in a cold climate, bundling and unbundling, walking with the wind whipping on your frozen face, trudging through snow turned to slush, biking on ice patches squinting between the snow flakes? I’m too old for that crap!

Or so I thought. Turns out I love it! Well, at least in small doses. When I woke up this morning and saw the first snowflakes, my New Jersey childhood memories were triggered and I remembered just how magical it is. And how good it feels to be cold and wet and come in to dry off at the fire with the requisite hot chocolate and such. Put on soft lights and listen to Schubert’s Trout Quintet and feel the world wrap around you.

Why are we so obsessed with being constantly comfortable? The hot chocolate tastes better and the Schubert sounds truer if we earn it by some sense of battling the elements, of facing cold, wetness, hunger, leg pain from the long walk or bike ride. I tell the people coming face-to-face with their own frustrations, challenges and insecurities in my workshops that the practice is to become comfortable with discomfort, in any of its many shapes or forms. The “discomfort zone” is where a lot of the great stuff happens.

As always, I need to listen to my own advice. At my age, the Florida retirement doesn’t sound as absurd as it used to, but it’s heartening to know that I can enjoy something so inconvenient, dangerous, wild and damn fun as riding a bike in the snow.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Salzburg Explosion

It’s remarkable how one word— “Salzburg”—can detonate an explosion of fond recall in people from all corners of the world. My simple Facebook status—“In Salzburg for two weeks” did just that as people rushed to comment – the first one came 3 seconds after posted, quickly followed by another.  Within a couple of hours, there were 60 “likes.”

No surprise. Every two years since 2003, I’ve spent an intense few weeks with some 15 students worldwide (90 total) and some 15 summers since 1990, have hung out with and taught some 100 students. With over 1500 folks I know who have partaken of the glory of Salzburg, all I have do is publicly name some other explosive words and they will smile with glee and affection. Secret words like: “Merkur. Almdudler. CafĂ© Tomaselli. Argekultur. Maibaum in Anif. Mr. Fisher’s lawnmower.” Only the initiated know.

Salzburg remains one of my favorite places in the world, despite the fact that they’re slow to wireless the place and still allow smoking in restaurants. Way ahead of its time with bike paths, still respecting the need for open space unfilled with malls and office buildings, mountains surrounding and a river running through, a balanced blend of old town and new, of nature and city, of Mozart heritage and modern artistic pursuits. I’m sure that all of this contributes to people’s fondness for the place.

But for the people I’m talking about, all that is mere backdrop to the spiritual center of their time here—The Orff Institut. This modest building next to the Frohnburg where Julie Andrews cavorted has been the place where radical experiments in art and education developed into a reliable pedagogy that has dispersed its discoveries far and wide around the globe. Those from far away who walked its halls and peopled its classes returned to their countries with seeds clinging to their socks. Some survived the new soils and with some dedication and patient care, grew to their own blossoming in the form of Orff Associations in 40 countries worldwide. Impressive work.

Today I had the double pleasure of being welcomed in a staff meeting as a guest teacher and then allowed to leave. My kind of meeting! But before I left, I told the teachers how moved I was by the Facebook response and said, 

I suspect that in this meeting you will deal with the details of keeping things running here and be as restless, bored or bothered as I sometimes am at my own school meetings. But maybe it’s good to start such a meeting with a reminder of how many people out there in the world carry this Institut in their heart with such great affection and gratitude. How many children daily receive the gifts of the training that goes on here. How many lives have been transformed by the classes you and those who came before teach. I’m deeply grateful for the work you all do to keep it going and want to speak on behalf of all my Facebook friends who feel the same. Carry on!”

And then I left the meeting and went to the Merkur to buy an Almdudler. 

He, She, It

Outside the JUFA Youth Hostel in Salzburg are two circles of young teens. One group is standing around and talking and occasionally leaning in to hug one another. The other’s chosen line of communication is a sand-filled ball which they kick in the air and pass to each other, until at a given signal, all disperse like seeds blown from a dandelion while one grabs the ball and tries to hit another with it. Guess the genders of each group.

I recently had a long argument with someone in favor of gender neutrality when raising children. Claiming that gender is socially constructed and that acknowledging and accenting differences limited our identity, he was suggesting eliminating the pronouns of he and she and all activities that separated boys and girls. Nothing new to me, this fantasy social engineering that seeks a brave new world that will never and can never be.

My friend acknowledged that there may have been a biological reason for the different bodies and proclivities of males and females in the past, but modern life has rendered it obsolete. There is a partial truth there. Very few men go out hunting to put food on the table and between birth control, day care, modern appliances and more, women’s choices have expanded far beyond homemaker. But there is another larger truth missing here. We can’t outrun our biology, no matter how “modern” we think we are. Our bodies and brains are the same as our ancestors from at least 40,000 years ago and though the “software” can open us to new choices unimaginable to our ancestors, the hard-wiring is significant.

At my school where we’ve run the gamut of opening choices— girls playing sports aggressively and encouraged to enjoy math, boys sewing and cooking and encouraged to enjoy poetry, hardly a single activity that both genders don’t participate in equally— girls still wear lots of pink and female teachers complement them on their looks, boys turn xylophone mallets into guns and wrestle with their friends more than talk with them. In just about every class where kids choose where they sit, there is a consistent division in boys and girls.

Are kids and adults more interesting if they explore opposite gender roles and characteristics, boys getting in touch with their feminine side and able to talk, feel and express feelings, girls excited by abstract ideas and feeling power in sports, martial arts and the like? I think so. Should people be allowed to place themselves on a gender spectrum without shame and ridicule? I believe they should. Should there be moments in our lives when we are neither male nor female, but simply human? Sure, why not?

But none of this is going to happen without beginning with the reality of our biological default setting. Left alone, the girls outside the Youth Hostel gather to hug and talk, the boys kick the ball together and then hit each other with it. No shame, no blame, nothing in that scene that needs to be fixed. In another moment, the girls may kick the ball and the boys may hang out and talk and that’s fine too. But let’s acknowledge that it is a world of he’s and she’s. We are not made to be “its.” Difference is real, necessary and worthy of celebration. Just ask the French. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Civilized Departure

You know what it’s like. The brutal 4 a.m. departure to be ready for the 4:30 Super Shuttle to get to the airport in time for your 7 a.m. flight. You’re the first to be picked up and the driver takes convoluted routes to get the next passengers. The clock is ticking and the tension begins. Finally arrive at the airport to long check-in lines that are moving way too slow and once finally through that, Security is yet longer and slower. You’re sleep-deprived, wondering whether you packed the necessary x,y or z and are one step closer to an ulcer wondering if you’ll make it on time to the gate. When you finally board, you discover you have a middle seat with a large person on one side, a crying baby on the other— and you’ve already seen all the movies.

But sometimes the exit is more civilized. Like today. The scheduled time is 3:15. In the afternoon! That means a leisurely morning to eat a slow breakfast, put the finishing touches on packing, go for a bike ride, close out the e-mails and even cook a light lunch. Get a ride (thanks to the wife) on a non-trafficked freeway, step right up to the counter to get the boarding pass and then on to Security with all of four people ahead of you. A leisurely stroll to the gate, you’ve scored an aisle seat and the plane is leaving on time. For awhile, it looks like you’ll have an empty seat next to you. A short disappointment when the man shows up, then relief then he’s thin and narrow-shouldered. And voila! there’s some of the movies you’ve meant to catch up on. Airport travel rocks!

So began my trip to Salzburg to teach for two weeks at the Orff Institute. I write this in the Frankfurt Airport after a smooth 11-hour flight. 2:30 in the morning SF time, five hours until my next flight. But here’s another mark of advanced civilization—America, take note. Seats without armrests where one can lie down and sleep. And so I do. To be continued.

                        ……………………………………………………

And sleep I did, lulled to the constant drone of the announcer “Achtung, bitte. Lufthansa 451…” the cities announced “Casablanca, Lisbon, Mumbai…” drifting in and out of my dreams. Awoken in time by my trusty travel alarm, a moment of panic when I wondered if they changed clocks an hour ahead today in Europe too and I actually missed my flight, but happily no. Boarded the short flight to Salzburg, a window seat and time to see the farms below and distant Austrian Alps. Arrived to a surprising warmish afternoon, bags out on the belt within five minutes, my host waiting outside to greet me and a quick settle in my single room in the Jufa Youth Hostel, the Schloss Castle in the distance out my window and the pleasure I always get unpacking and moving in to my new home for the next two weeks. Tomorrow a full round of classes with 14 students from 11 countries— back to my “Confessions of a traveling music teacher mode.”

I loved being at home for ten weeks with no airport trips, settled into the routine of teaching the kids at school and enjoying San Francisco. And I love this as well. Always appropriate to express gratitude to all the visible and invisible helping hands that make this life possible. Thank you and onward!

P.S. A word of advice. Never watch a Woody Harrelson film, especially if it has the word Psychopath in the title. Ah, Woody, what happened to you after Cheers?

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Childhood Recovered


What is irreplaceable? Everything and nothing. Each thing quickly claims its place in the cosmos. No matter if it’s as grand as a whole nation or as small as your dresser table—it is a companion in your world and when it is gone, things are not quite the same.

And yet if there is one law in life, it is that it must go on and go on it does. Other things or people fill the hole and in the case of the more memorable things and people, colors are not as bright for a while— until they are.

One of the better things my wife and I did as parents was keep a journal of our kids’ development, writing letters to them telling them of their progress and the stories of their funny comments or poignant moments or big breakthroughs. As one might imagine, we started writing every week, then every month, then almost every year up to the teenage years when we just gave up and turned it over to the kids themselves. We glued in photos, had the grandparents write when they visited and imagined that the kids would someday enjoy reading about themselves.

My older daughter Kerala did indeed dive back into those pages to compare her baby milestones with her new daughter’s. She found it fascinating, funny, intriguing and heartwarming. We encouraged her to begin one for her little Zadie and she did. It’s a grand tradition.

But four years ago, when daughter Talia moved away from San Francisco, she lost her journal. It made me heartsick to think of it in some dumpster somewhere. As I said above, nothing is irreplaceable, but that journal felt like a precious heirloom, the thing I would grab running out of the house in a fire. Every time I would think of that lost journal, my stomach felt queasy.

Tonight, talking with 28-year-old Talia back in her old room while she gets her feet on the ground in her San Francisco return, she showed me all the work she did cleaning her room. And then casually said, “Oh, and I found this.” And there was the journal!!!

We sat down and read through it together and it was every bit as precious as I remembered it. We looked at her preschool class picture and she named every kid in the 40 kid group. (Then went to Facebook to show me what they looked like now.) But even more interesting was reading my predictions of her character, mild complaints about her strong willful nature and praise for her bright, surprising and inquisitive mind, her athletic and  rhythmic physical self and all of it still present in this young adult who I admire and love as much as that little girl. And of course, the same for Kerala.

Nothing is irreplaceable, but some things are more precious than others. And when they return unexpectedly after being “lost” for four years, it’s a joy beyond words. A whole childhood recovered in handwritten letters and printed photos gluesticked onto paper.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

After the Revolution


I went to college in the glory years— 1969-1973. The ‘60’s were reaching their apex and the times were ripe with turmoil and good vibes, chaos and community, hope and despair, radical politics and Eastern-style enlightenment— and great music as the soundtrack to it all. Vietnam and Woodstock side-by-side, Karl Marx and Buddha sitting in on the college classes, black and white (literally and metaphorically) stretched to the edges and no tolerance for grey. And all of this made yet more intense at my particular chosen spot for higher education—Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Antioch was founded as a radical departure from business as usual and on the front campus, there still stands the statue of one of its founders, Horace Mann, with the inscription, “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for mankind.” Antioch took that seriously and was not only an advocate for social justice, but also a leader in experimental and experiential education. It had an ongoing “co-op job” program which alternated study in the ivory tower with work out in the “real world,” an opportunity for young adults to mix theory and practice and get their feet wet in the work world without the full measure of responsibility. 

Why am I talking about this now? Simply because I was invited to be listed in the Antioch Alum Directory and write a little something about life post-college. Here’s what I submitted:

“Back at Antioch, we used to imagine life 'after the Revolution.' It was a central topic of discussions in formal classes, on weekend walks through Glen Helen Nature Preserve and in evening gathering in the dorm rooms passing lit substances around. We naive and idealistic youngsters talked about 'After the Revolution' as a given. It never came, but instead was the slow evolution of growing up and finding out how to better the world one inch at a time. For me, that meant teaching music via the Orff approach to chldren and teachers alike, cultivating a Zen practice, performing jazz and writing about it all, all passions that started in those good ole college days. John Ronsheim that remarkable music teacher, Nippo the guest Zen Master, Avon Gillespie, the guest Orff teacher, Cecil Taylor, the guess avant-garde jazz musicians, all helped shaped my vision and eventual practice in each field.

All my co-ops were at alternative schools and I've spent the last 38 years at one such school in San Francisco, with no plans yet for retiring. My first trip to Europe was with the Antioch Chorus and I've since returned some 35 times since teaching Orff workshops—and to South America, Africa, Asia and Australia as well. Still married and with two wonderful daughters doing good work and one delightful granddaughter. Still in touch with many of the folks who lived together at Drake House on Xenia Avenue, none of whom have “sold out to the Establishment” and continued to do their own good work in diverse fields. The Revolution never came— thank goodness!—but those fledgling ideas from back then have indeed blossomed and moved us closer a foot closer to the freedom of the human spirit. Still many miles to go and so we sow the seeds for the next generation to water. But every day I’m grateful that I had the good fortune and good sense to spend four memorable years in a small, vibrant college community in a little town in Southwest Ohio. Thank you, Antioch! May your legacy live on!”

PS And for the record, it almost didn’t. But when the Board of Trustees announced that the College would close a few years back, the alums, true to the spirit of their alma mater, answered “over our dead bodies!” and began the drive to re-open the College with a new alum-driven board. The New Antioch is in its second year and growing. Hooray for that!

 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sensation Inflation

Hey folks above 50! Remember being a teenager and starting your record collection? Each purchase dreamed of, saved for, deliberated over, anticipated with eagerness? The browsing at the record store, the moment of purchase, bringing the treasure home, holding the large object in your hand and gently setting it down on the turntable? Reading the liner notes and admiring the artwork? Shelving it next to your other 15 records?

I went through the same process with books and still have a few of those dog-eared paperbacks with their old paper smell. The books that burst my world wide open were few— the old classics Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, Cat’s Cradle,  Walden, Wind in the Willow’s and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,  Tale of Two Cities and Manchild in a Promised Land. They sat on my growing library shelf with about 20 other companions, each one a door into a larger world.

Things felt more precious way back then, not only because I was 18 and just starting out, but because there were so many fewer things to choose from! Each thing had a character— an album with its cover design, a book with its cover and a special heft and weight—and each had a special meaning because of all the effort required to acquire. Same process for waiting for a movie to come to town or scouring the TV Guide for the moment when a favorite would appear.

Fast forward to the virtual world of today, The choices of what to watch, listen to, read or buy in myriad formats, most with a mere button push, is staggering. Youtube alone apparently can keep you occupied for 600 years. How do I know this? By walking to the library and going through an extensive search in the stacks of the back rooms for the hidden volume containing the sought-after information? No, by an instant button click. And a quick copy and paste:

Total number of YouTube videos -- over 120,000,000

Number of videos uploaded per day -- about 200,000

Time required to see all the videos -- over 600 years

Number of videos watched daily -- over 200,000,000

Music is no longer the precious record/cassette/CD carried home and shelved. For most, it’s floating out in i-Podland. Books read on Kindle all have the same size and weight and smell. The once-coveted Cassette-tape-compilation of favorite songs given as a gift to that special someone is now a playlist merged into the ocean of weightless and colorless information.

Is this bad? Is this good? Would anyone willingly go back to the labor of searching and waiting? Is the earth happier without abandoned plastic disc covers from CD’s? Is this even a discussion worth having?

Don’t ask me. After all, I’m writing it on this virtual blog. But I suspect that there is at least a small loss in human health and happiness when everything is instantly available and stored so abstractly. The amount of sensation available to us humans craving novelties has increased in massive geometric proportions compared to the townfolk a mere 150 years ago waiting for the circus to pass through town. And a sensation inflation brings a corresponding meaning deflation. When amazing things are available to see on Youtube and we see so many of them, I wonder whether each decreases slightly in its effect. With 600 years of viewing ahead of me, I’ll suppose I’ll find out.

 (Question: Has this blog has just decreased the value of my other 474 postings?)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tranquility


Where does tranquility live?

Is it in the mind, when the mischievous monkey thoughts
stop their ceaseless cavorting
and come to rest?

Is it in the body, muscles toned after a vigorous bike ride, stomach satiated
from a light lunch,
all bodily systems in a state of perfect equilibrium?

Or is it in the heart, all bitter regrets finally accepted
or let go or forgiven?

Or perhaps it’s in World itself, for example, right here, right now,
at the Calistoga Spa,
the air uncluttered by the loud of machines,
instead, the trills of red-winged blackbirds,
planted palms around the steam-rising hot pools
and distant hills beckoning.

To all the above, I say yes, yes, yes and again,
Yes.