Thursday, April 30, 2020

Filling the Storehouse

I’ve spent so many hours of my adult life—and with great pleasure— browsing in record stores, bookstores, musical instrument stores, looking for nothing in particular. But my antenna are up waiting for some signal and suddenly a recording of Romanian brass bands, an obscure book of poetry, a Thai jaw harp will leap out at me and I think, “Someday this will come in handy.” I don’t know why or how or when, but some trustworthy intuition says, “Get this. You’ll need it someday.”

And so my house became a storehouse loaded with so many multiple themes—music from just about every corner of the world and every recordable time period, books about neuroscience, the history of literacy, anthropology, mythology, fairy tales and Jungian psychology, Zen Buddhism, jazz biographies and so much more, the accumulated treasures of years of browsing, all enjoyed in the moment and stored away for some future time when its importance would be revealed.

And that time is now. Every day these past 7 weeks, I’m confronted with novel situations that call for the full breadth of my knowledge, intelligence and problem-solving skills and down I go to my basement storehouse and lo and behold, I never come up empty-handed. Not to say that I have the Romanian Brass Band CD in hand (though come to think of it, that could be useful in Saturday’s workshop!), but that these years of self-directed independent study have prepared me equally for a 3-year old online music class,  an 8thgrade jazz project, a spontaneous-now-regular neighborhood sing out on the street, an online Orff workshop attempting to speak equally to teachers from New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Wyoming and yes, Romania! 

My whole life long I have trusted in such intuition and it has never let me down. The habit of filling the storehouse with the wonders of human thought and expression has never appeared so important as now. I wonder about those who have nothing to turn to beyond the endless parade of TV sitcoms, ephemeral pop songs, newspapers and such that they’ve filled their time with. Not too late to start filling the storehouse with things worthy of hauling up from the basement, but I’m so grateful that I started early. 

And I’m not just talking about great books and music recordings. We never know when the deepest and most precious part of ourselves will be necessary and helpful and useful, but now is the time when we are finding out. We each are indeed needed and if we’ve been reluctant to step forth before, too shy or not confident enough or worried that we’re not worthy, put it all aside and come forth! Show us what you have and how it can help bring joy, alleviate suffering, be useful and important to a fellow human being. 

And when you do, I’ll bring a Romanian Brass Band to provide the celebratory fanfare!

Don't Forget

I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but my experience of life is a constant forgetting and remembering. Some part of us knows exactly what we need at all times, but through inattention, laziness, getting brainwashed by some powerful figure or swept along in mainstream culture’s amnesia, we forget. And then if we’re lucky, we remember again.

Same thing with my teaching. When I teach workshops to adults and pass on some essential information about what makes teaching memorable, flowing, in the groove, life-giving, fun, I tell them that I’m mostly reminding myself what’s needed when I get off track. And as stated above, we seem to have a propensity for constantly leaving the rails.

This came to mind playing Rummy 500 with my wife last night. There’s the first remembering. Play some games! The two of us haven’t played cards together for some 30 years or so, but with all this time together in the house, why not? 

And then we put on some music and there was Astrud Gilberto singing some lovely Bossa Nova and there was another reminder. I have over a thousand CD’s and another thousand records in the basement. Why not listen to them? Remember those simpler (well, at least different) times when that song was the soundtrack of that era in my long life. So yes, I’ve been playing piano a lot, but why not remember the gift of recorded music?

Then I had our now ritual 6-feet-apart-in-her-backyard lunch with my daughter Talia and besides the pleasure of remembering to play paddleball, we actually started joking with each other and making each other laugh. Ah yes, laughter. That’s worth remembering.

So in this time of sheltering, remembering what’s really important—card games, laughter, music, paddleball—will help see us through. And hopefully stay by our side when we finally walk out of the house into the new future that awaits.

What pleasures do you need to remember? Treat yourself!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Killing Monsters

Out of the blue, someone from a Community College who I have never met wrote to me and asked me to elaborate on my ideas from my book Killing Monsters. Here's the weird thing: I didn't write that book. But I actually reviewed it for some publication whose name I can't remember—17 years ago! And equally weird—I found a version of it on my computer. And the third strange thing—I liked what I said. it holds up. So I might as well share it here:

KILLING MONSTERS: A REVIEW
                                                            ©2003 Doug Goodkin

Jones, Gerard. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.(New York: Basic Books, 2002). ISBN 0465036953; 272p.; $25.00.


We all love to blame. When things are going wrong—as they inevitably always are—we find some strange comfort in blame. Everyone has a favorite target—Republicans, immigrants, corporations, rap music, the economy—take your pick. The one thing we can be certain of is that the reason for the current state of affairs is invariably complex. The moment we assign it to a single cause, we cut off the possibility of meaningful conversation, and more importantly, meaningful change. 

As a teacher of some thirty years, my own favorite whipping boy has been the media, particularly a predatory entertainment industry that is eroding childhood and unraveling each night the careful work we teachers do each day. When a colleague handed me Gerard Jones’ book Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, she told me—"This is a book I think you'll hate." Skimming through it, I was prepared to agree. As someone who has spoken out passionately against excessive television viewing and video game playing for children, a book that reassures parents that Mortal Kombat is not only harmless, but actually beneficial for children, did not seem promising.

I reluctantly dove in and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I agreed with much of what Mr. Jones has to say:  Kids need to feel empowered through fantasy play, they need to work out aggressions within the safe containers of games; repression is not an effective strategy in changing behavior; television does not cause violence in human beings (witness the history of the world before T.V.). Adults should not project their fears onto children but instead listen to the child's experience. So far, so good. But the more I read, the more I felt vital questions were lightly passed over, strange contradictions left hanging, and distorted facts presented as credible support.

The basic thesis, repeated in every chapter in the book, is sound. Violence and aggression are hard-wired into our system and cannot be sidestepped by mere forbidding and repressing. Playing with these impulses through fantasy and mock aggression, children (and adults) express these impulses in healthy and non-harmful ways. From this premise, Jones goes on to say that the entire industry of violent entertainment—TV, movies, pop music, and video games—is but a modern reincarnation of ancient stories and practices. We adults can relax—the children are doing just fine, growing up into empathetic, caring human beings who are "changing the world just the way we want them to." (1)I wish I could relax as Jones suggests, but in my own experience as a teacher, in my talks with other teachers, and in my readings of the newspaper, I see plenty to be concerned about— or at least informed about.

For starters, if a generation of children is brought up in an electronic environment that permeates their lives more thoroughly than any previous generation of children, it would seem at the very least useful to consider its impact. From Parzival to Pokemon, from Mozart to Eminem, is not a mere switch of mediums. By now we should understand that "the medium is the message" and that different things happen in the human brain and heart when presented through live storytelling, print or electronic media. The amplified power, easy access and intimate connection with advertising and consumerism of today's media is reason enough to attempt to distinguish between a nighttime story told or read by parents and MTV. Jones touches on, but fails to go deeper into questions worth asking. What is the difference between a child's private nightmare and watching Friday the 13th? What is the difference between listening to a fairy tale and playing Grand Theft Auto? What is the difference between the monster the child imagines reading Beauty and the Beastand the one pre-made by Disney? What is the difference between turning a carrot into a play gun and ripping out a spine in a video game? Between fantasizing about killing monsters and watching robbers scalp a man in Nurse Betty?  Between reading a myth in which good violently subdues evil and playing the video game in which you get points by clubbing innocent bystanders at a mall with a baseball bat? Between mediums of storytelling designed to enhance adult guidance and those designed to shut it out? 

If children need to work out fears and aggressions through fantasy and fantasy play, are not dreams, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, playing with action figures and dolls, and play with peers, sufficient? (In one of the more outrageous claims in the book, Jones quotes a psychiatrist who says, "The most aggressive kid in our neighborhood is the one who doesn't get to watch TV at all, because he has no outlet."(2) )  Do video games and TV work exactly the same way as dreams, fairy tales and fantasy play? If so, why pay so much money for them? Do they do the job better? If so, are there other possible consequences and side effects worth examining? These are the kinds of questions the book either ignores or skips lightly over.

Throughout the book, Jones seems more critical of parents wary of the arsenal of mediated violence sold to children than the corporate mercenaries who peddle such violence for profit. He states that "entertainment violence has become far more intense and explicitly gory over the past forty years because the reality with which we confront young people has become so much more intensely and explicitly violent."(3) Here he conveniently ignores what the toy companies know. The human nervous system loves novelty, surprise and sensation, but quickly adapts to the level offered. If your intention is to capture people by shock rather than subtlety, nuance and character development (and in these days of channel surfing, that has become a survival strategy of networks), then everything must be louder, faster and gorier in order to attract attention. As any veteran teacher and learning specialist will tell you, the cost of a constant diet of hyper-sensation is high—on one end, an epidemic of kids diagnosed as ADD and on the other, kids bored with reading, piano practice or watching spiders weave a web. Jones fails to distinguish between a pleasurable pastime and a habit, between a discipline and an addiction. Video games and kid's TV, like sugar, fast food and buying things (with which they are inextricably linked through advertising), are designed to be addictive and the younger the child starts, the better—for the industry, not the child. 

It is well documented that children's vocabulary has declined significantly, that both the ability and desire to read have declined, that the ability to distinguish shades of color has declined. Whether or not endless hours in front of TV and video screens is directly responsible for this deterioration is a matter for a more extended debate—suffice it to say that they do not stimulate the language centers in the brain, and, language is an essential tool for non-violent conflict resolution. Jones makes a good case in suggesting that some mock aggressive play is healthy, but does children, parents and teachers a disservice when he fails to recognize how many more strategies and practices for dealing with aggression, i.e., use of language, artistic expression, conflict resolution techniques etc.  He neither seems sufficiently alarmed about the loss of nuance and subtlety nor sufficiently clear about how acting out aggressive impulses leads to greater compassion, understanding and character. He writes: 

Longer-lived shooter games succeed on their complexity and suspense, but for many of them, overstated gore is now part of the package. What was once offensive becomes accepted. The cost of that is a coarsening of popular culture. Entertainment becomes less deft, less graceful, less subtle. Those of us who prefer more polite and suggestive aesthetics find less to like and more to steel ourselves against.
        The gain, however, is that we are reminded what really matters. Our world isn't kept out of barbarism by concealing ugly realities or suppressing shocking images. The bonds that hold us together are empathy, acceptance, and a mutual desire to make the real world better, not a fragile web of constraints and controls."(4)

Did I miss something here? As entertainment becomes more barbarous, we are called back to the task of empathy and a desire to make the world better? Just precisely how does that work? I will walk as far with Jones as to acknowledge children's ability to make certain fantasies—from Superman to Pokemon to Buffy the Vampire Slayer—serve their needs at the moment and then move on. However, releasing tension through mock-aggressive play and imagining you are powerful through fantasy play is a long, long way from attaining lasting inner power, developing solid values and forging a character with integrity. When I see children in a video arcade, I do not leave feeling assured that they are Gandhis-in-training.

As a teacher, I know that real power comes from struggle, not instant gratification. It comes from mastery of something that gives back more than a pre-packaged game—say, language or music or sculpture or sport. I also know that empathy and acceptance comes from constant interaction with other complex human beings and from models, real and imaginary, that inspire. Many of the children Jones interviews tell of how certain pop icons seem to understand their sense of alienation, abuse and pain. Yet it is the very nature of many of these games to feed that alienation, angst and malaise. Violence cannot be squashed down through repression, but neither can it be dealt with effectively through constant expression, imaginary or real. For real change to take place, there must be a transformation and that requires guidance, discipline and a certain amount of restraint. That is the job for the adults in the society to teach—most importantly, parents, but also teachers and yes, even video game makers. And, as Gerard Jones repeatedly states, part of that teaching may be in offering some fantasies without morals attached. But part of it also may be to recognize the dangers of fully releasing fantasies from a moral container.

Pop culture is an indisputable fact and force in children's lives. There are ample cases where a pop icon, whether Mighty Mouse or the Iron Butterfly (my own childhood and teenage heroes), seizes the imagination of a young person and helps him or her move through an important phase of life. Jones is most eloquent when he speaks for the children's needs to have these kinds of experiences. But I believe he doesn't serve children well when he ignores developmental levels (Emily working out her female issues by obsessing on Brittney Spears—in second grade!),when he downplays the need for rigorous parental guidance and gives parents easy validation for letting their kids alone with their machines in the other room ("Young people love new media and they love media that bring entertainment to them easily and without adult screening. Making such media their own, separating it from our control, is part of how they plunge into the future and master it."  (5) and when he excuses the industry's increasing excesses and shameless preying on children's love of sensation. 

I began by suggesting that the switch to electronic media is not a mere change of venue, but a profound change in the way our brains and hearts are shaped. Yet there is another change that calls for awareness and that is the increased presence of popular culture in children's lives. As I confessed in my article “TV—Then and Now” (6), my generation growing up in the 50's and 60's was the first to ingest so much television. As I read Jones' book, I chuckled remembering how my mother forbad comic books convinced that I wouldn't want to read real books. I bought them anyway, hid them in the basement and also read real books voraciously—and still do. The Beatles appeared just when I needed them at age 12, but that didn't stop me from playing Bach on the organ and listening to Beethoven. I had a brief period of existential teenage angst when I retreated to my room and became addicted to reruns of McHales Navyand Gilligan's Island. I also memorized all the words to Bob Dylan's “Desolation Row.” Yet at the same time I watched the Professor and Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island, I also read Walden and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Pop culture is healthy in small doses, but a disaster when it becomes virtually all children know. The proliferation of available medias, their heightened power and marketability, and their increased presence in children's lives at younger and younger ages is something new under the sun. Pre-pubescent children at rock concerts, two year olds playing video games and a constant diet of instant entertainment are taking their toll. It's as if dessert has become the main course of the culture. When a ten year old asked Wynton Marsalis what he felt about rap, Marsalis replied:

The fact that somebody ten years old listens to Ja Rule, Jay Z and all that—that's one of the greatest aberrations in the history of humanity. …The fact that an adult would let that be something that kids listen to is a testament to how far our civilization has fallen.  And it's a blot on us, the older people, not on y'all. Whatever we give y'all, you take. The fact that we give that to kids exposes us as one of the stupidest most backward civilizations ever. Never have so many people been given so much and given their children so little. (7)

Here Marsalis is neither speaking for Puritan repression nor unbridled indulgent expression. He speaks from an illustrious tradition of transformation, of facing our darkest and most brutal experiences and lifting them up into something beautiful. Eminem had an abusive childhood and we are asked to understand him and celebrate him for saying who he is. He grew up in darkness and is expressing that darkness. Beethoven, Dickens, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday also had brutal childhoods, but learned how to transform their darkness into a light that shines on in their art. I would feel more at ease with children enjoying Buffy the Vampire Slayer if they also knew who Mother Jones, Martha Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt and Billie Holiday were. If young people feel like they need to see "any chick in cool clothes who kicks ass!" (8), I believe they also need to see what Mother Teresa and Melba Beals and Helen Caldicott have done. If Jones' concern is the health of children and their development into caring adults, I believe it would have been worthwhile to emphasize the need to keep pop culture and its values from overwhelming the minds and hearts of our children. 

Finally, Jones begins the book critiquing the simplistic notion that mediated violence causes violent behavior and then virtually swings over to the equally simplistic notion that mediated violence alleviates violent behavior. However, it is in the internal conversation between permission and restraint, fantasy escape and disciplined work, personal dreams and community responsibility, that the real work lies. Jones' voice is certainly worth a hearing, but alone his views fail to give parents and children the tools they need to conduct that conversation. He says, "Mostly I just acknowledge what they're saying. It's like clutching your chest and falling down when you're shot, or just looking at a child and smiling." (9)  That's fine as far as it goes. But how far does it go? I suggest children need something more from adults— and they need something more from themselves. Let's get to work.




Sunday, April 26, 2020

Frolicking in the Lilies

“Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself…”

-              Matthew 6-25:34; The Bible

“Some risk has to be taken for life growth to continue and transformation to occur…”

-      Michael Meade: The Genius Myth

I’ve always been a lilies-of-the-field kind of guy, comfortable with uncertainty and confident that the kindness of strangers and some benevolent angels would watch over me. So far, so good. 

The kinds of risks I took were not slack-lining over Yosemite Falls, climbing up Half-Dome, bungee jumping or motorcycle racing. I had a healthy concern for putting my actual life on the line and apart from boarding countless airplanes, getting in cars and occasionally shaking vending machines (you’d be surprised at the statistics of death-by-vending-machine!), that also has been a good choice. 

The type of risks and deliberate steps into the unknown I’ve taken are things like hitchhiking a few times across the country by myself. Signing up for the most rigorous 7-day Zen meditation retreat without having done any previously. Traveling halfway around the world with no hotel reservations or itineraries. Stepping on to the SF Jazz stage to play piano where the Gods have walked before me. That kind of thing. 

And despite tsunamis and earthquakes and viruses and the unrelenting march of wars and a President who advises us to drink Clorox and thought stealth bombers invisible to radar were actually invisible and suggested nuking a hurricane and praised the Air Force we had during the Revolutionary War—and worse yet, despite the 30% - 40% of my fellow Americans who believe him and excuse him and support him, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still have some deep-founded Faith that the world is a benevolent place and people are mostly kind and helpful and the stories I can tell about hitchhiking and travel and such all point to that same conclusion— some level of risk is essential to a life well-lived. 

And that has spilled over into my teaching of children. Creating enough of a safety net and modeling myself an exciting venture into the unknown that they’re willing to try a xylophone solo in front of the group having never done it before. That they’re courageous enough to “show us their motion” and bold enough to sing that solo. These kind of risks can be scarier than the tightrope walk and reap greater building of character— increased willingness to keep climbing beyond safe contentment and the reward of surprising beauty that sometimes emerges. 

When I first heard about a Risk Committee being formed at my school, I was excited that we were taking a bold step to risk further. Of course, no “committee” will ever risk anything but the safest common denominator and what it really was about was letting fear creep in and hit us behind the knees, crippling our ability to boldly walk and urge us to tiptoe through school life in pleasant slumber. Not good.

This is not the time to extol risk, for the Cautious are in the lead and for now, that’s okay with me. I started off flaunting the virus by hugging visiting alums and gradually towed the line for the good of the whole community and in sensible response to the real dangers. I want to keep living long enough to keep risking as I have, to keep improvising into the unknown at and away from the piano to see how it turns out. 

But maybe it’s a good time to have this discussion. Because nothing would be sadder than to come out of this with distrust enabled yet further, with fear constantly at our side, with intimacy a dangerous value. Michael Meade (quoted above) goes on to say: 

“Youth are at greater risk when their elders try not to be at risk at all. They need to see others taking meaningful risks and surviving those risks. The issue is not simply risking one’s life as much as risking being fully alive in the midst of the life one has been given.”

And might we all find some consolation in the advice “Be not therefore anxious for the morrow”? Not in any kind of na├»ve science-denying way, but in some deep sense of spiritual benevolence still afoot in the world, no matter how invisible it might seem. Maybe we might find it in the emerging Springtime as we frolick through the lilies.

6 feet away from fellow-frolickers, of course. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Technology Manifesto Revisited

The right tool for the right job for the right reason at the right cost at the right age for the right amount of time with the right awareness of what it adds and what it takes away.

This was the opening to an article I wrote many years ago. Now that Zoom is our new best friend and days spent glued to screens is one of the ways we’re staying connected while sheltering in place, one might think that the table is spread for me to eat every word I ever spoke to caution us against the use of too much electronic technology. 

In fact, I think coming out of this time will be the perfect time to reflect deeper on what we’ve mostly mindlessly accepted. I imagine we’ll be so grateful for every precious section of actual physical contact with fellow human beings and the great satisfaction of live conversation and the even greater satisfaction of group music-making with no screens in our way that we might think twice about settling for chats and tweets and Zooms when we could be out dining, walking, playing with each other. 

Of course, I, like so many right now, am grateful for the ways some of our technologies are allowing us to keep certain things going. But note how this is entirely line with my manifesto in italics above. “The right reason” could not be clearer at the moment. Since we can’t be physically with each other while sheltered in place, this is the right reason to use these available technologies. And as mentioned above, we are becoming aware how horribly clumsy online learning can be compared to kids in a real classroom, how when given a choice, it is often the “wrong tool” for the job. 

And new positives are being revealed as well. Only 30 to 40 people could or would come to my workshop in San Francisco, but 150 people from anywhere with a close-enough time-zone theoretically could attend. As friends from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Finland, Thailand and beyond actually did for a workshop I was supposed to do in New Jersey. And while the live workshop is irreplaceable, such ongoing supplements might indeed become a practice beyond the time of our sheltering. I’m open to it! 

I reprint below the body of a Technology Manifesto I posted a few years back (of course, you remember that, don’t you?) and hope you might find it interesting as to what holds up. I’ll let you decide! What is below comes after the italic quote above.


The right tool acknowledges that technology is a way of knowing through tools and we would be wise to find the one best suited for our goals. Not just figure out how to use what someone demands we use, but decide for ourselves which tool is most effective and efficient for our purposes. A xylophone is a technology as well as an i-Pad and can get more musical neurons firing than any slick pre-packaged music program with button clicks. As we now know, e-mail is a terrible technology for intelligent and communicative argument, but a fabulous tool to arrange and announce the workshop. Examples abound.

The right job is our vision of what we consider important, the cart that the horse pulls. Once we’re clear about that, then we can intelligently choose which horse to pick.

The right reason to use any technology is that the choices we’ve made will deepen our students’ understanding and get their neurons firing, their bodies engaged, their imagination percolating and their hearts excited.  Using computers just because the school bought them and needs to justify its purchase is not the right reason.

The right cost means factoring in the limited resources and budget of any school and deciding if the bang is big enough for the buck. But that cost is not just the price of the machine, but the expenses of upgrades, replacements required by planned obsolescence, increased security in the school building, electric bills and hiring people to maintain and fix the machines, train the students and staff.

The right age means educating ourselves about the developmental needs of young children and the damage using the wrong tools at the wrong times can cause. 14-year olds using an i-Pad for research is quite different from 4-year olds bonded to machines.

The right amount of time means taking into account the limited time we teachers have with children, the amount they need to follow nature’s developmental agenda, the amount they already spend in front of screens at home and after-school.

The right awareness means reflecting on how technologies change the body, change the brain, change culture. No technology is neutral. Each leans towards accenting certain human faculties and potentials and neglects others. Mostly people dismiss the question by casually saying, “it depends upon how you use it.” While the latter is true to some extent, the reality is much more complex. And if we are to use it consciously and not just reflexively, we will need some help. There is no training in the machine manuals that give you warnings (Danger: This technology has proven to be addictive!). There are no required classes before purchase to assist you in using appropriate restraint, for yourself and particularly for your children. Now there are camps for children that serve as rehab for electronic addiction, testaments of our failure to foresee the consequences ahead of time.

As for schools, I think it's time for experienced teachers to trust their knowledge of children, of their craft, of their field of interest and decide for themselves how much electronic technology to use and when and with whom and for how long without anyone mandating them or making them feel that they're not "21st century" if they don't go with the trend. How can we teach children to think critically and make wise choices if we ourselves are not doing so?

What would make sense is for each teacher to reflect on the points above and for each school to collectively consider them as springboards to further discussion. Do some research (consult me if you need a reading list) alongside personal reflection and actual observation as to how computers have already impacted the kids you teach. In a matter as delicate as children’s minds and bodies, we can’t afford to mindlessly invite machines in without due diligence and proper skepticism.

And particularly when the whole deal is tied to money. “Follow the money” is the first dictum of analysis as to how decisions get made and there are lots of people and corporations making lots of money from schools who know nothing about kids and education and may or may not even care. It’s not too late to just say "no, thank you" or "maybe, I'll think about it" or "yes, but…" to the wholesale acceptance of computers in schools. If this article can help move things in that direction, well, hooray for that.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Future Is Now

… was the name of a course I took my first semester at Antioch College in 1969. I believe it was trying to make a deep philosophical statement, but now it takes on a new meaning. I made a calendar for myself tonight to make sure I was in touch with commitments, but at the end of the little project, realized I could only fill in the next three days. The rest of April, all of June are blank and July has some things in pencil knowing they might yet be erased. Indeed, the future as I, as we, used to know it, has been reduced to now—or at least the next few days.

My school life and beyond was run by the calendar. Each day had a character according to which children showed up at the music room door, each month was marked by different ceremonial events, all of which I had to prepare for, dream of, work for. And my very active life outside of school was likewise filled with this or that weekend Orff workshop, a few courses in other continents, a series of SF Jazz classes, an occasional music gig. Not to mention the concerts or plays I had tickets too, the occasional party or wedding and so on.

Life back then—meaning 5 weeks ago!—was always a three-part affair. The anticipation, the looking forward to followed by the event itself and then the savored echo and reflection. Now the mantra of 1969—Be Here Now—is not an optional spiritual choice, but a practical daily reality. 

I miss that life. I’m doing okay and there are still little things to look forward to—the Zoom alumni sing, the neighborhood sing, a few online classes with the kids, but I miss the excitement and variety and expectancy built into a full calendar. Again, it’s okay, the narrowing down to the nutritious and mostly tasty three-meals a day of rice, beans and tortillas I ate a lifetime ago in Guatemala, but still I yearn for a stir-fry or a pizza. Don't you?

And how are you doing with your empty calendar life?

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Sheltered Poet

As we turn towards week six of sheltering in place, I find myself thinking of Emily Dickinson. Here was a person who spent much of her adult life in her room. By choice. She secretly wrote poetry— lots of it—only seven poems published anonymously and the rest after her death. Her voluntarily Solitude seems so extreme that it made Thoreau look like a party guy. 

And yet the art of Solitude is to feel in the presence of the best company when alone. Thoreau at least had scrub oaks that he fell in love with and the constant comings and goings of the birds and bumblebees and the bloom of Spring flowers, but it seems like Emily was simply in the presence of furniture and the invisible spirits that peopled her mind. So in our enforced aloneness, perhaps she has some good advice for us to transform it to a working Solitude that perhaps was sorely missing from our busy and distracted lives. 

Here’s a few tidbits from her poems about that very subject. Go slowly and read them out loud to get the full meaning:

 A Prison gets to be a friend–
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours—a Kinsmanship express—
And in its narrow Eyes—

We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deals us—stated as our food—
And hungered for—the same—

We learn to know the Planks—
That answer to Our feet—
So miserable a sound—at first—
Nor ever now—so sweet…

(There are five more stanzas. Look it up if you’re curious.)

Here she reveals her company in Solitude.

Alone, I cannot be–
For Hosts—do visit me—
Recordless Company—
Who baffle Key—

They have no Robes, nor Names—
No Almanacs—nor Climes—
But general Homes
Like Gnomes—

Their Coming, may be known
By Couriers within—
Their going —is not‚
For they’re never gone. 

 Here's a poem that reminds us to limit our CNN, Fox News and even Daily Show intake!

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality. 

The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and today—
Perchance Eternity—

The Only One I meet
Is God—The Only Street—
Existence—This traversed

If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I’ll tell it You—

Finally, my own little poem:

Sheltered we may Be
Face to face with Me, but We–
More clearly now do See.
Your book upon our knee,
Your words, your thoughts, Thee.
Thank you, Emily. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Preferences in the Socially Distanced World

• Preferred mode of travel for long trips: RV’s

• Preferred public entertainment: Drive-in Movie Theaters. (Bring your own popcorn.)

• Preferred recreational sport: Golf. (With onesomes.)

• Preferred vehicle to take your friend shopping: Limousine. (They sit in the back.)

• Preferred restaurant: Pizza take-out. (Leave the money outside the door.)

• Preferred time to take a walk: 3 am

• Preferred card game: Solitaire

• Preferred clothing style: Burkas. 

• Preferred response to someone sneezing in your presence: God Bless Us.

• Preferred movie: Groundhog Day. (Viewed in your living room.)

• Preferred profession: Retired. 

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Modern Online Schoolteacher

 We big-brained bi-ped opposable-thumbed creatures have many faculties that separate us from the animal world and in our arrogance, we are often way too proud about that. We may not have warm and fuzzy feelings about rattlesnakes, hyenas, mosquitos, but hey, none of them ever purposefully killed or made others miserable so they could make money or feel important. If we are to have these faculties and tools further up the evolutionary chain, we should at lest use them for the right purposes and the right reasons—things like health, healing and happiness.

Take writing. We can use it to make lists of possessions or create manifestos of hatred or use it to reflect on our human condition and try to make sense of what’s going on. Or at least make it humorous. It was in that spirit that an offhand comment in an e-mail inspired me to write a new version of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Following Tom Lehrer’s example of using the song to learn the Periodic Table (called The Elements), I’ve written a few verses about the difficulty of teaching an old Doug the new tricks of online learning. Hope to get a friend to sing and record it soon, but here’s a first draft. Enjoy!

THE MODERN ONLINE SCHOOLTEACHER
Sung to Gilbert and Sullivans’s The Modern Major General
                                             @ 2020 Doug Goodkin

We’ve got Google Drive and Google Meet and See-saw, yes and Schoology
To learn our mathematics and our English and zoology,
There’s Flipgrid, Acapella and then Padlet, also Parent Square
I’ve learned them all, so please don’t tell me that there’s even more out there!

I’m meeting kids in gridded squares on screens that are now run by Zoom,
And when they’re not available, I download videos from Loom.
The school I used to know is disappearing, yes it’s burning
In the forest fire that we’re calling online learning.

It’s drag it here and dump it there and click on this and click on that, 
Command shift 4 to screenshot it, two-finger click is where it’s at,
Then grab the link and share it out or save it in your Google Drive.
Then see if you remember if you’re on asynchronous or live.

You’ve got to keep track of your passwords, keep your toolbox up to date,
Make sure that your signal’s strong so kids in Zoom won’t have to wait.
Have everything you need lined up, make sure you know the URL,
The teaching that was heaven suddenly feeling like you’re stuck in hell.

But don’t despair, tear out your hair, there is a moral to this song.
Now we’ll all be ready when the next pandemic comes along!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Joshua Fit the Battle

My “interview” to get hired as the first music teacher of The San Francisco School was camping with the upper-elementary kids. For seven days. It was the Spring of 1975 and the place was a parent’s land in Feather Falls, California. We dug latrines, set up tents, created a cooking area with Coleman stoves and got ready for a week of hiking, swimming in the pond, playing games and generally hanging around in company with sky, stars, pines and waterfalls. 

Naturally, there was an evening campfire and for my “interview” process, I was invited to lead a song or two. So that first night, I led a folk song from Arkansas called the “Hound Dog Song,” with all joining in on the chorus:

Every time I go downtown.
Somebody’s kickin’ my dawg around.
It makes no difference that he’s a hound.
They shouldn’t be kickin’ my dawg around.

The next morning, Josh, one of the 6thgraders and all-around-coolest-kid, came up to me and asked if I was going to lead any more songs that night. Thinking he loved it and was anxious for more, I enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” And then got taken down five pegs when he said:

“Could you sing something a little less corny?”

Aargh, the honesty of children! And now I was worried! I had failed my first test. So I thought long and hard and remembered a song that was a bit more rhythmic and bluesy and had Josh’s name in it. So the next night, off we went with:

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down.

When it was over, I looked over at Josh and he gave me a thumbs-up. Yes!!! I passed!

And so they offered me the job (did it help that Josh’s mother was the Board Chair?) and now 45 years and some 8,000 Singing Times later, I finally decided to complete a long-overdue project—The San Francisco School Songbook! Hunkered down at home during the school’s “Spring break,” what better time to have a project that connects all the days and lifts the 20-year cloud that has hung over my head? Not only satisfying in its concreteness—“today I’ll do all the song from A to C”—but lovely to sing the songs again in my head while typing out the lyrics and remembering some specific stories associated with them— Phoebe Lockwood’s signature writing of the first verse of “Casey Jones “ on the big song-sheet, Nate’s constant distraction in Singing Time brought to focus everytime we sang the words “Wabash Cannonball,” my own daughter Kerala’s dance she performed to “The Barnyard Dance” and so on.

And so yesterday, I finished the words to the 179thsong and was looking for the perfect last song (180 is 4 times the 45 years I’ve sung at school). Not a single human being on the planet cared about what that last song was going to be, but because of the way my ritualistic mind is put together and my lifelong obsession with meaning, I wanted it to be a special one. And lo and behold, there it was! “Joshua Fit the Battle.” As it was in the beginning, so it is at the end. Josh is now 57 years old, I’m no spring chicken, but still I sing with children and though it appears that the last official Singing Time at school was on Friday, March 16th, ending appropriately in my mythological universe with “Side by Side,” still I hope that the echoes will keep sounding and that this school songbook will help keep it all alive. And also fitting that Joshua is about music toppling walls and helping win the age-old battle between good and evil. 

So there you have it. Today will be my third online alum sing and I believe I’ll include this song. 

PS “Fit” is the approximation of the proper accent in this style to sing the word “fought.”
Just in case you were wondering.