Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Too Short!

We’re into a food theme for my 5-year-old music classes and today they sang and danced my jazz “One Potato” number, then moved to the xylophones to improvise little phrases based on combinations of the plastic food I had in the middle of the circle. Things like: 

“Watermelon apple, watermelon apple, watermelon apple, Yum, Yum. Yum!” 

Bam! Over a simple C and G drone and playing the “yums” on C, you got yourself a nice little piece of music. That you made up. And the others tried to guess. With a “Bluebells Cockleshells” song as the filler between each kids’ composition, well, there you have a nice rondo form piece put together in 5 minutes. 

These classes are 30 minutes long, but at the end of the first class, several kids spontaneously commented, “It was too short!!” The next class came in and off we went again and darn if a kid didn’t say at the end, “It was too short!” Which I take to mean, “Hey, this was super-fun and I was just getting in the groove and why do we have to stop just because of two stupid hands on a clock?” Good question!

I’ve had times in my life when the clock ticked so maddeningly slow. Like the last half-hour in my childhood school before summer vacation. Most of the times I’ve had to go to church. Many of my classes in school. The time I went to a celebration of Frau Orff ‘s(Carl Orff’s 4thwife) 80thbirthday quite hungry and suffering from jet lag and sitting through speech after speech. In German. Which I don’t speak. For 3 hours. Near the end, a music group sang a song and they were asked for an encore. Had I a gun, I certainly would have shot the person who requested it. When finally released, I rushed to the food and there were only a few small snacks. Most of them filled with meat. I’m a vegetarian. Now that was torture!

But on the other side, I have sometimes felt like the children today. Deep in the pleasure of something that ends too soon. And still enjoying so profoundly most of the minutes of each and every day, I suspect these could easily be my last words:

“It was too short!”

Monday, November 11, 2019

Letter to the Republicans

Dear Republicans,


Here is a timely reminder from former Republican Congressman David Jolly that you would do well to heed. There was a time where Republicans could differ from Democrats over issues like the economy and government control of various parts of public life and still feel that they were part of the same country and shared the same concerns about protecting the promises of the Constitution. But not today. Here’s my guest editor’s note to you. There’s still time for you to jump ship and save a bit of your soul and perhaps a bit of your country. Mark these words:
These are the moments where my anger is somewhat palpable because you've just got to be honest. These are, in today's Republican Party, spineless politicians rotten to the core without virtue. Without any level of human integrity, devoid of self-respect, self-reflection, without courage, and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence.
And one day maybe they will have the recognition of how they failed the country and themselves in this moment. But that would be giving them credit that somewhere down deep they have the goodness to recognize how to reconcile their own failings with what is right and just in American politics. And frankly what is right and wrong in the eyes of adults and children alike. And there's no other example. And why no argument will ever work for Republicans, and I agree they inevitably will make the case this is not impeachable.
The problem is it requires every single Republican to align with Donald Trump and say that only Donald Trump speaks the truth. That Lt. Col. Vindman, a man of honor and Purple Heart recipient, does not speak the truth. Ambassador McKinley, somebody who's referred to as the “dean of the foreign service core,” does not speak the truth. Ambassador Yovanovitch, somebody who dedicated her life to promoting freedom and U.S. ideals on the world stage, does not speak the truth. Only Donald Trump does. And there is no greater example of selling your soul to a charlatan than what Republicans are doing right now in the House and the Senate. And their legacies are on the line just as much as Donald Trump's. We know the character of Donald Trump. We know the failings of Donald Trump. Watching play out in this impeachment proceeding is the failings of a Republican Party and every single member that goes along with this.        -David Jolly

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Small and the Meek

“Some people are so poor all they have is money. “    —Bob Marley

Where’s My Roy Cohn is a timely movie, not only revealing what makes the power-hungry tick, but specifically connecting Roy Cohn with his protoge√© Donald Trump. Cohn was the right-hand man of Joe McCarthy who conducted the witch-hunt (the real use of that term, not the co-opted spin Trump is using) against Communists and later homosexuals. Part of the complexity and irony with a person like Cohn was that he ruthlessly and expertly aided that hunt even as he himself was gay. In fact, he likely had a sexual relationship with another hunter on the team, David Schine and when Schine was drafted, Cohn tried to use his influence with the military to give Schine an easier deal. When the military refused to give preferential treatment, he and McCarthy turned the hunt against ferreting out Communists in the armed forces. But you don’t mess with the Pentagon. It backfired and McCarthy’s Communist/homosexual purge came to a halt when a Senator declared, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The Committee disbanded and that was that. 

Of course, Cohn kept on as a lawyer, defending Mafia bosses, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful and twisting things around always to his personal gain. He helped Reagan get elected and defended Trump against various law suits involved racial discrimination in housing and non-payment of employees. His main strategy was, “Spin the charges to make the accusers look like it’s their problem, never apologize, never admit anything, never show remorse, lie, lie, lie.” And so he set in motion the main strategies of the Republican party carried on by Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and today’s list of evil, evil people purposefully manipulating the easily-duped public for their own political and financial gains. When asked if he could have helped Nixon, Cohn shamelessly suggested he could have gotten Nixon off, advised him to burn the tapes and so on, without a shred of thought that this would be a betrayal of the American people, illegal, anti-Constitutional and just plain wrong. In short, if asked “have you no sense of decency?” his answer would be “Of course not! That’s for weak people.” In his world of caring only for riches and powers, all of his actions made sense. As do Trump’s. 

But just desserts often comes around at the end. Cohn, the witch-hunter against homosexuals, died of Aids. And won’t it be delicious when Trump’s lies finally catch up with him and he’s escorted from the White House, hopefully into jail? Cohn managed to keep avoiding various charges against him, but he was disbarred and from that moment on, all his “loyal” friends, including Trump, abandoned him. Such loyalty is always based on “what can I get out of this ‘friendship?’” and if the answer is nothing, well, that’s the end of that.” I don’t suspect Sean Hannity will be visiting Trump in jail. 

Meanwhile, just as Cohn was driven to climb up the ladder to hell by hanging out with the rich and powerful, so am I driven to descend the steps to heaven by spending my days with the small and the meek— children. Jesus is not my savior, but I like his blessing of the meek and the idea that they shall inherit the earth. (But they better hurry before the power-crazy destroy it!). Equally, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Hey, Republican Christians and Wall-Street moguls who go to church, are you getting this memo?

Of course, little children are powerless in one sense and pretty powerful in another. I’d like to see these vicious pseudo-adult predators carry on their work while caring for a baby. I’d like them to try to teach preschoolers for a day and then they’ll see how powerful they really are. But what I’d really like them to see is what a bad deal they’ve made for themselves by ruthlessly following the wrong dream and let the children lead them back to some sense of the wonder of life, the appreciation of beauty, the value of real friendship, the expressive artistry that frames the 3-year old’s day as they sing, dance and play their way through the world. It takes just as much energy to learn how to teach children and be taught by them as it does to claw your way to more riches and power, but the rewards are so much greater. The real power is the inner spiritual power, the moral power, the sense of having something beautiful to give back to the world in exchange for the gift of a human birth. Telling Trump and his type to “be nice. Tell the truth. Listen to others. Etc.” makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the dream/nightmare they’ve chosen. It’s the driving narrative that has to change and then decency can take its rightful place back in the world that is driving it out.

It’s Sunday and while folks are dutifully going to church to mindlessly mouth the inert platitudes that they’re not living, this is a sermon to consider. 

And then go see the movie.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The New Slave Patrol

I get most of my news from Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, which means they show clips of what actually is happening and then help both fuel and soften the disbelief through humor and intelligent commentary. Recently, there have been some clips from Trump’s rallies and I’ve been astounded to see young black people in the crowd behind Trump. What are they thinking?

Or rather, “What am I thinking?” Of course, they are strategically placed there to send a subliminal message that this guy is representing them. Perhaps they get paid. I hope so. What self-respecting black person would do such a thing unless it involved some money that at least could help pay the rent or pay school fees? Of course, human beings are so painfully complex as to often think things and do things that make no sense whatsoever, that go against their best interests. Like blue-collar folks who get duped into thinking Trump is their guy and has their interests at heart. 

But we have a long history of carefully thought out deception. When poor whites realized that they were also the victims of a system that rewarded the rich and powerful and began to get together with black folks yet more brutally oppressed by the system, the rich and powerful put them on “slave patrol” and offered them money to capture escaped enslaved human beings. Later, they’d give them the 40 acres and a mule that they briefly promised as reparations for slavery and then took back. And finally, they invented the notion of whiteness and made them members of the club that put them one step higher than their black compatriots. No longer were people German, Italian, Polish, even Jewish, the way folks earlier identified themselves. They were part of the white race and that identity was their crumb of comfort as the system continued to beat them down, ignore them, use them, toss them aside. And we’re still trying to sort all of that out.

The slave patrol offer was so powerful that even some black folks got involved. (See the movie Harriet about Harriet Tubman for a good example of that—one repents, the other keeps helping and notice how he ends up). The machinations of this monstrous machine were so powerful and so evil that people would sell out their own brothers and sisters. And that machine is still grinding away at the very fabric of intelligent citizenry.

And so back to the black folks on camera behind Trump nodding their heads in agreement. Of course, no “white folks” should be there either and certainly no women and no working class folks and no Mexicans and… well, the list of people who don’t benefit from the Trump club’s antics and are actively vilified by him and then expected to cheer for him is long… but black folks have historically known the real deal and refused to be duped. What are they thinking?

Meanwhile, here’s a TV shot I can’t wait to see. Trump on camera with a few million folks behind him of all colors, class, genders, religions cheering wildly—as he’s escorted to jail. That’s  a shot that won’t need to be staged.

Diminishing Eyebrows

What is living but an ongoing lesson in loss? From your childhood pet hamster to the elder’s long parade of those who left before, loss is as irrevocable as death and taxes. But where is the school curriculum to prepare us, to guide us, to help us navigate the trodden paths of perpetual farewells? Our refusal to look loss in the face is a big part of our denial of life, our habit of building a fortress around the heart for protection, our daily decisions to go to the bright-lit shopping malls to avoid the darkness that accompanies losing the people and things we have loved. 


Some cultures recognize the necessity to grieve and also celebrate, with long, elaborate funerals that involve weeping, dancing, singing and more, with ample time to go to the depths and reach for the heights. Other cultures (ours?) schedule it in between appointed business meetings and after the short requisite moment of somber reflection, people run for the door to get back to business as usual. Not a good thing. And telescoping out from the personal to the collective, a huge part of the ongoing presence of history’s specter of genocide, slavery, oppression, injustice, our refusal to own the horror, to mourn properly, to take the time to feel it down to the bones. 

Loss doesn’t only mean death of our loved ones or the end of relationships or children moving off to college or parents to the senior home. It can mean the face of the city once loved (Damn you, Sales Force Tower!!), the loss of civil discourse, of just politics, of culture and community. Or maybe the loss of a sustainable planet?

From that sobering thought comes the reason I’m writing this. I looked in the mirror today and saw that my eyebrows are pretty much gone. Or so white you can hardly see them. Ha ha! Fussing over diminishing eyebrows? Well, loss is loss, no matter what the scope or size. Goodbye, old eyebrow friends. Thanks for all the years. 

And now on to the day. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Friday Report

It’s 3:35 on Friday afternoon and I’m sitting alone in my music room, my second home of 45 years. Every piece of wood, metal, fabric, in the room is charged with the spirit of the endless parade of children who have danced through here on their way to adulthood. The happy ghosts of all the adults who have music-workshopped here are lingering in the air. The countless miracles witnessed here are still echoing and rippling out, including the nice moments from some kids in today’s classes. 

I’m in the “the next thing” mode, not exactly just “getting through,” but a sense of building toward the Halloween celebration, them Bam!, step up the Orff Conference rehearsals and intersecting with that is the December Holiday play. Always on top of normal classes, dealing with my work life outside the school, leaving time to go see Gypsy Jazz (last night! Fabulous!) and contemporary piano music (tonight!— after playing soon at The Jewish Home). 

Nothing earthshaking to report, no big lesson for humanity that’s on my lecture schedule, no grand poetic sweep gathering up a beautiful moment—just a moment to pause, take a single breath and move on into the weekend, blessedly free from commitments. 

Oh, I did clean my closet yesterday! And serendipitously, discovered a used-clothing drive at school that just started today. A nostalgic farewell to all my old clothes that warmed my body during the thick and thin of it all. May someone find them useful. 

Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Nothing New

Re-reading Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, I’m struck once again that thought the times and places and settings change, there really is not much new in the human condition. The same old flawed human beings making courageous or cowardly choices, bringing light into the world or plunging us into darkness, moving through obstacles with firm humility or swaggering around with their heavy shoulders of power. Trump is a type that has always been with us and you can find lots of him in Sir Mulberry Hawk and his cronies (Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Rudy Guiliani, etc. their contemporary counterparts). What worries me more is the three young black students nodding their head to Trump’s lies at the recent Kentucky Rally, the brainwashed masses with their “Read the Transcript” T-shirts who didn’t read the transcript and don’t have the capacity to understand that this was illegal. Trump without the nodding masses is simply a powerless buffoon. They are the ones who created and sustained him. Back to real education, people. 

But meanwhile, here’s Dickens’ portrait (p. 435). Pay attention to that second paragraph!

"The reflections of Sir Mulberry Hawk—if such a term can be applied to the thoughts of the systematic and calculating man of dissipation, whose joys, regrets, pains, and pleasures, are all of self, and who would seem to retain nothing of the intellectual faculty but the power to debase himself, and to degrade the very nature whose outward semblance he wears—the reflections of Sir Mulberry Hawk turned upon Kate Nickleby, and were, in brief, that she was undoubtedly handsome; that her coyness must be easily conquerable by a man of his address and experience, and that the pursuit was one which could not fail to redound to his credit, and greatly to enhance his reputations with the world. And lest this last consideration—no mean or secondary one with Sir Mulberry—should sound strangely in the ears of some, let it be remembered that most men live in a world of their own, and that in that limited circle alone are they ambitious for distinction and applause. Sir Mulberry’s world was peopled with profligates, and he acted accordingly. 

Thus, cases of injustice, and oppression, and tyranny, and the most extravagant bigotry, are in constant occurrence among us every day. It is the custom to trumpet forth much wonder and astonishment at the chief actors therein setting at defiance so completely the opinion of that world, but there is no greater fallacy. It is precisely because they do consult the opinion of their own little world that such things take place at all, and strike the great world dumb with amazement.”

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Lazarus Effect

One can’t assume that people still know Bible stories, but the story of Lazarus is about a man who had been dead four days before Jesus comes to the tomb and resurrects him. It became a miracle that convinced the skeptics that Jesus was no ordinary guy. 

Yesterday in our rehearsal with 38 kids preparing to perform at the Orff Conference, another such miracle occurred. Watching the kids perform body percussion, we had an informal contest about who was the most alive, dynamic and expressive. The child who “won” surprised us all— I think his new nickname should be Lazarus.

This is someone who has been dead not four days, but four years in music class! He enters class with body language that shouts, “I am bored to tears. I have no interest in anything, no energy for anything. I make Eeyore look like the life of the party.” Truly. It was just plain depressing to be in the same room as him—frumpy, floppy, disengaged. If harnessed, the amount of energy he expended couldn’t power an electric candle for five seconds. But he did begin to study saxophone last year and there was a tiny spark that sometimes erupted if you looked really hard.

We were all surprised when he signed up for this performing group, but ever advocates of the resurrection of the human spirit and always faithful to the notion that kids (and adults) can wake up to their best versions of themselves, we accepted him on the condition that he continue saxophone lessons and honored all his commitments. It was a rocky beginning when he was slow to resume lessons and missed an early rehearsal because “he wanted to play with his friends.” We gave him one last chance and lo and behold, things began to change. We discovered there was actually a dance inside of that floppy body and an occasional smile that snuck out and some basically solid music skills. And then yesterday, he was looking good in that body percussion piece! Go figure.

These the kind of miracles the newspaper never reports and the number of followers who deeply believe in the power of music to awaken and revive are pretty small compared to the Christian Church. But that doesn’t make it any less real. The Lazarus story lives on and I have living proof. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Welcome November!

The calendar page turns once again and it’s November. Halloween has come and gone in all its splendor. The powerful Intery Mintery ritual at school fulfilled its promise, 100 children joined together in music, dance and drama every bit as stirring and musically satisfying as opera or Coltrane. Walked that night with the Interns to the other world of Belvedere St., imagining a tourist arriving accidentally and astounded by the throngs of costumed people leaving their day selves and entering the magical, mysterious, hilarious and just plain weird world of Halloween.


Writing this at 7 am in the morning, the world is dark. The days are warm, the nights are cold, the Day of the Dead arrives and we begin the descent into darkness. The battle of good versus evil rages far away (but oh, so close!) and we anxiously await for the monster to be vanquished and his apologists to slink away in shame. For me, the delicate thread of long relationship has confusing moments of fraying—how hard it is to sustain friendship and collegial comradery amidst the thousand ways we can misunderstand each other. But some things never disappoint— Bach’s cello suites, for example, or fingers flying fully released through the jazz changes. Trees that one can hug, the silence of following breath with crossed legs and erect posture, a night sky filled with stars. They all await patiently when the human world becomes unbearable. 

And the darkness. It can accent our exile, our fears, our worry about the long night’s sleep from which we will not awaken or it can come as a welcome presence, a reminder that the busyness and business of the bright day is just half the story. It can bring us closer as we huddle together for warmth and comfort and get us singing a different kind of song, the bittersweet beauty of the minor key that touches other strings of the heart. 

And so November. A low-stakes election before the big tsunami, my 38thturn of the wheel at the annual Orff Conference, an abundance of birthdays—daughter Talia, granddaughter Zadie, nephew Ian, old friend Debbie and the memory of my father and father-in-law. And of course, Thanksgiving, that oasis of simple family feeling around a table untarnished by Hallmark and the endless consumer culture. 

Against the increasing decreasing odds, the world spins on and we’re still tied to it by the reliable force of gravity and some other world encouraging us to awaken against the terror of the ticking clock of climate change. The water boils for my morning oatmeal, a patch of light shows out the window as the day begins to break, the endless errands and chores await and then biking off to a Senior Center to sing and play piano. A line from the Incredible String Band (via Shakespeare) greets the month:

“All this world is but a play. Be thou the joyful player.”

Well, why not? Welcome November!