Monday, December 31, 2018

Pebbles in a Pond


In my look back over the year, I felt an honest satisfaction with what I was able to accomplish. Then I watched the documentary RBG and thought, “I have done nothing of value in my life!”

Of course, I know that’s not wholly so and that “compare and despair” is a habit to avoid. But still. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes a Dissent on the Supreme Court, the whole of America shakes and trembles, stands up and takes notice. If I write a similar sentiment on this Blogpost, a handful of people read it and go on with their day.

Let me be clear. This is not envy or jealousy. What Ms. Ginsburg has accomplished came from a long, patient dedication, using the whole of her intelligence and social skills and refusal to let anger and outrage cloud her work. She is worthy of every ounce of adoration that she has earned and continues to earn and I join the throngs of her admirers.

But it did make me feel that my own work of giving children and adults some pleasure in making music and some feeling of being connected to others and some sense of being appreciated for their uniqueness seem somewhat small and insignificant by comparison.

When I’m in this frame of mind, I remember Gary Snyder’s Zen teacher saying to him, “Sweep the garden—any size.” So it’s not only about the quantity of your contribution to some healing and justice in this world, it’s about the quality and the effort and the sense that each small contribution helps. A music teacher’s voice is a tiny whisper compared to the might roar of a Supreme Court Justice, but still it counts. It reminded me of a poem I wrote when I turned 60:  

           PEBBLE IN A POND

At 20 years old, I was confident, cocky, sure 
     that the boulder
         I would heave into the mainstream
                  would make a big splash in the world.

Each decade, the stone
                             and the stream
                                          got smaller.

At 60, that once-big splash a mere pebble
                                                                    in a small pond.

But still it makes ripples, tiny rings
that circle outwards
     and sometimes reach the shore
of someone’s life about to be changed.

Here’s to yet another year of tossing pebbles in the pond.

The Year at a Glance


The last day of what has been a truly extraordinary, fun, satisfying and surprising year, one that somehow has stood out from the crowd, a time when various threads of my life’s direction came together in my personal multi-colored dream-cloth and revealed a design both meaningful (to me) and beautiful. What stands out?

Taught Orff workshops in San Francisco, Oakland, Oregon, Michigan, New Orleans, Oklahoma, New Jersey and Ohio. I crossed the Northern Border and taught in Toronto, Vancouver and Niagara Falls, Ontario, crossed the Southern Border to teach in Mexico City and flew across oceans to teach in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona) and Ghana, in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou), Thailand and India. Four continents, a few thousand teachers and the satisfaction of passing on what works well with children in music classes. Just about everywhere, the additional perk of renewing treasured friendships and initiating new ones.

• Recorded and produced first CD: Boom Chick a Boom: Jazz for All Ages with Doug Goodkin & the Pentatonics. Performed with the group at various local schools, the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse and the prestigious SF Jazz Center.

• Finished teaching my 43rd year at The San Francisco School and began my 44th.

• Wrote two-drafts of my 9th book Teach Like It’s Music and one draft of my 10th Music From Five Continents.

• Received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Orff Schulwerk Association for my many years of service in Orff training.

• Spent some 30 intense delightful days on six different occasions with my children and grandchildren in their home town of Portland, here in San Francisco, on the shores of Lake Michigan and the beaches of Hawaii.

• Wrote some 344 posts this year, 2244 in the eight years of this blog, hit over 402,000 Page Views with 202 Followers.

Like I said, a truly extraordinary, fun, satisfying and surprising year. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t take some pride in the way my painstaking efforts over years and years have borne fruit and appeared to bring some fun and pleasure to, and some recognition from, others. The reward is always simply in the feeling of good work well done, but it helps when the world takes notice and affirms it. 

Grateful for it all and may 2019 bring more of the same!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Calls from the Past


Something odd is happening here. I got an e-mail from a student who I hadn’t heard from in 48 years. He was from an alternative high school in Hartford, Connecticut where I worked for all of three months. But the way things were back then, relationships were intense and quickly formed and though I hadn’t been in touch with any of the students from that time in almost 5 decades, I could picture the five or six he mentioned in his letter. Turns out that he will be teaching at the same Conference that I will be two weeks from now in Puerto Rico, which is how he made the connection. Astounding! Look forward to meeting him again in person and catching up.

Then the next day, I got an e-mail from a childhood friend who I probably met when I was 2 years old or so. By high school, we had been out of touch, but I occasionally checked in with him in my early adult life when I went back home to visit my parents. Some 15 years ago, I stumbled on an e-mail thread with him and three other friends from my town. I remember a few contentious political e-mails back and forth and never did visit him in person. And then out of the blue, he sends me this picture he came across. That’s me in the lower left first row and him second to left in the second row. Since I wore glasses for two years between 5 and 7 years old, I’m guessing I was about 7 there, same age as my granddaughter now. Naturally, I remember everyone in the photo.



Without taking an ounce of credit for it, I have a very good memory for faces and names and seem to care about keeping the threads of relationships connected however worn and tenuous they may be. In addition to the normal childhood folks we all meet and the people in the neighborhood and the people we go to school with, I have a large group of kids who I have taught in San Francisco and beyond and an equally large group of adults I’ve taught in the Orff trainings. The symphony of faces and names is of Mahler proportions and it gives me great pleasure whenever some music from my distant past begins to sound again through these surprising and unexpected e-mails.

Any old girlfriends out there who want to check in? Susan Herman? Tracy Cunningham? Monica? Just curious.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Business with a Face


(The following is an excerpt from the book I’m writing that I think I need to leave out. So I’m giving it a home here).

I fondly remember shopping with my mother at Sam and Andy’s Produce, where we exchanged news about each other alongside the money for the apples—and often a free treat thrown my way. I bought my comic books at Debby and Irv’s, got my haircut at Jack’s and occasionally dropped in at Burt’s (my classmate's father) Hardware. In the 1980’s, I brought my own kids to Heidi’s Bakery for both cookies and conversation, had coffee at Howard’s CafĂ©, got both records and record reviews with Don at The Magic Flute and got my car fixed at Jim’s. Business with a face.

Traveling, I loved going to countries where you had to bargain in the marketplace. It wasn’t a relationship on an equal footing—you trying to get the lowest price, the seller angling for the highest. But it was (and is) a fun game, both of you knowing you’d probably end up in the middle, but interacting with fake outrage, humor and the sense of enjoying a social encounter while shopping. Outside of the market, businesspeople in Europe and Asia negotiating a deal invariably begin with a cup of tea or coffee and the gestures of social grace and casual conversation before getting down to business. Such niceties, that can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours, drive American business folks crazy, but are part of the sensibility that relationships and business should be intertwined, both for the pleasure and the more refined and cultured way of approaching the making of deals.

As lived by people like Sam and Andy, Debby and Irv, Heidi and others, small businesses with a personal touch not only had their place in American towns, but in our collective imagination as well. As I write this in December, people are flocking to the theaters (or the video store or their Netflix accounts) to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. How they love to boo and hiss at the crooked, shady, heartless, arch-villain Potter who was only out to make a buck. How they cheer when George Bailey’s lifetime of forged relationships comes back to him in his moment of need and saves the day. They see George surrounded by love beyond the norm, imagine Potter dying as a bitter, lonely old man and are called upon to reflect a bit on their own life and consider who they helped out in their short time on Earth.

And then they switch the channel/ video to A Christmas Carol to watch Potter’s ancestor Scrooge pinching his pennies and turning out his neighbors with a “Bah, humbug!” It took his ex-partner Marley sternly reminding him that “mankind is his business” and the mirror the ghosts hold to his life to wake him up to his long neglected better self. These were the mythic tales, spiritual parables and moral lessons of a time when business was reminded to serve relationship.

No more. Some of the same people who boo Potter or Scrooge each year voted in their real-life version to run the country. How did that happen? Instead of a kindly face, business now has a robotic voice. The handshake deal has been replaced by the 10-page legal contract, with 6 places to sign initials after language that no one can understand. Back in my home town, Noah’s Bagels later replaced Heidi’s Bakery, but none of us knew who Noah was. Borders replaced 9th Ave. Books, Blockbuster competed with the neighborhood Le Video and suddenly the world had turned corporate and faceless, with pierced young people who had to look things up on computers to answer questions. Now ever more so with shopping online and robots answering phones with their fake amiability and their inability to answer your particular unique question that’s not in the script. And often when you do get a live person, they’re as mechanical and cold as the robot. The pleasure in the economic transaction gets lost and it’s a high price to pay.

So whether in school or out in the world, relationships bring color and life to the business of living. Getting to know the folks at the farmer’s market, who not only enjoy cultivating a relationship with you, but also have an intimate relationship with the food they grow and well, chatting with your travel agent before getting to the itinerary, greeting the mailman. This is how humans have lived for millennia before efficiency, profit, brand names, corporate amalgamation, huge mega-stores, robots and robotic-like workers began to take over the world. We may get our goods faster, cheaper and more conveniently, but what does this do to our quality of life? There simply is no comparison between the Costco run and the walk to the local market talking with the sellers and your neighbors and discussing which kind of apples are at their crispest and sweetest.  Creating this kind of friendly and family feeling in schools prepares kids to make smart choices about how they want to live and what’s really important in this life.

But are schools doing their part in preparing the children to say, now and in the future, “It’s a wonderful life?”

Friday, December 28, 2018

Hide and Seek

 We struck gold with our gifts for granddaughter Zadie. Each day of our seven days together, she’s been working on her magic tricks from the kit I bought, playing with her 20Q electronic toy, filling in her “Book About Me,” painting with water colors my wife gave her and playing, alongside brother Malik, with the Magna Tiles. It’s so satisfying to search for gifts that fit someone’s interests or introduce new ones or help them practice existing ones and find that they hit the mark. I’ve loved playing all of the above with her, alongside the usual standards of playing cards, reading books, telling stories, singing songs.

But I have to admit that besides the hours at the ocean’s edge, on of the best moments was this afternoon when our misty, moisty house rental up a few thousand feet in the town of Volcano, Hawaii, graced us with a mid-day few hours of actual sunshine and we all sat on a back porch listening to birds and chatting. And then, arising spontaneously from Zadie going indoors for a moment and asking her aunt to save her seat and me sneaking over to her chair and her catching me, came a good old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek. When discovered, the goal was to race back to the chair to see who could get there first. Or race to the chair before being discovered. Malik joined in the fun and we went at it for some 30 minutes straight, this old guy playing a game he used to play some 60 years earlier and having exactly as much fun.

The song “The Best Things in Life Are Free” comes to mind and ain’t that the truth! It’s fine to shop occasionally in stores and ride on the coattails of some game someone else invented or story they wrote or music they recorded, but there are few things more pleasurable than creating one’s own entertainment with the simple tools of time, intention and imagination. An endangered series in today’s preprogrammed childhood—and adulthood.

Our last night in Hawaii, the kids asleep, the adults are going to play— well, Pictionary. But if it was light outside, maybe we would have tried Hide and Seek.