Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Time Travel to Formentera

I recently received a Facebook message from Bruce, an old college  acquaintance. Haven’t been in touch with Bruce for over 20 years, but he found himself thinking about a trip we took and wondering if I remembered more than he did about what happened on it. Luckily, I still had my journal, the first one I wrote to be followed by 47 more years of journal writing. And so I typed over my entries from that trip.


I was a senior in college touring Europe with the Antioch Chorus, some 30 hippies singing the sacred Masses of Guillame Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem in the great cathedrals of France and Italy. We had been together for about a month, going from Amsterdam to Belgium to various parts of France and then had a two week “vacation” free to do what we liked. I decided to go to Spain with three others—Lexi, Bruce and Suzanne. We started hitchhiking in Southern France, but it soon became clear that four people hitchhiking were too many. So we split up—Lexi with Susanne, me with Bruce—and decided to meet in Barcelona. The eventual plan was to go to the island of Formentera, where Lexi had a friend who offered her house for us to stay in. 


This entry was from Barcelona, written two days after my 22ndbirthday. My life then appeared as a marvelous banquet with an enticing table set for me and an invitation to sit down and enjoy. That wondrous sense of adventure and possibility and blank pages to be written, that delicious uncertainty about what life would bring to me and what I would offer it in return. I read again now at the other end of that banquet, looking back with gratitude and wonder at that beautiful meal shared with friends on top of a hill overlooking the city. I’m not getting up from the table yet, still another course or two (one hopes!) awaiting and other people at the table, even if now on small screens. So sweet to remember this time of travel and comradery and youth in this other time of sheltering, solitude and eldership, not as nostalgia, but as simply another dot on the same line of a long life. Here’s that 22-year old:



7/30/ 1973  “The snail crawls two feet—and the day is over.” An appropriate haiku to describe the pace of this line at the ticket office for boats to Formentera. But no matter—a chance for me to write a bit about Barcelona, this city with an unmistakable magic. A pedestrian city with many walkways lined with trees and alleys where cars never venture. The weather is warm and breezy and the city pulses with activity, drawing one immediately into its world.


The city  lives in passion, one becomes lost in the dance of events,  filled with delightful smells and sights, a carnival of impressions that carry you away. Its loudness is the chatter of the teeming jungle, the animation of people and animals, not the mechanical roar of machines that pervades most cities. ALL LIVES, ALL DANCES AND ALL IS LOUD a line from some poem that comes to mind. 


The open-air market is filled with all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, fish and meat. We shopped there, milling about and moving from one stall to another guided by our appetite and our pocketbook. Then we ascended via metro, cable car and cable railway to the Tibidabo, a small mountain that watches over the city. Found a table in a park and picnicked on strawberries, grapes, peaches, dates, figs, peanuts, bread, goat’s cheese, blue cheese, wheat biscuits, green beans, milk and wind. A welcome balance to the frenzied activity below, sitting on top of the world bathed in silence and sharing food with friends. We then strolled to the amusement park which crowned the hill and had a quick battle in the bumper cars. It brought me back to the Jersey shore, walking the boardwalk and pausing to watch how everything glowed in the night and feel the beauty of the moment. 



Tickets finally in hand, we head to the boat leaving for Ibiza. Said a simple goodbye to Janet, a good spirit who I enjoyed. Then boarded the boat, hung over the deck and watched the people gathering to see us off and the workers tying up cars and boats to load onto the ship. Rolls of toilet paper suddenly appeared from nowhere and within minutes, colorful streams of paper where flapping in the breezing, connecting the ship to the people below. I caught one and flung it down to a beautiful grey-haired woman with marvelous blue eyes that were opened wide in childish delight. She caught it and we remained connected for 15 minutes, maneuvering in and out of the criss-crossing paper and adjusting to the various wind speeds. It was an art and we played as if it was a matter of life and death to maintain our bond. I started praying that our line wouldn’t break, I got so involved. An incredible spectacle as we stood waiting, the air streaming with toilet paper, people shouting back and forth, huge smiles and great festivity. And all this for a nightly 10 hour board ride! It seemed that there were some regulars in the crowd who came every night just to see boats off. (I definitely want to do that when I return—I am fascinated by the light-hearted seriousness people put into useless activities—sailing boats in fountains, unraveling toilet paper as ships depart—they seem the only things really worth doing). 


The boat finally took off. My paper-mate and I were out early in the contest, having a short roll. We bade each other an affectionate farewell as our paper blew off into the distance. And now we are 30 minutes out to sea. The night has fallen and I sit on the deck, amazed that I find myself here. Ships hold such a romantic appeal to me, a dream from childhood come true. I am happy now…


Monday, January 25, 2021

Jet Lag and Zucchini

Got time on your hands? Today’s assignment: Write a piece with Jet Lag and Zucchini as a title. Go!


Mine is simple. I was cooking a Thai Yellow Curry, vegetables over red rice, and wanted a zucchini. I didn’t have one. So out I went in the dark, cold 6 pm air in light sprinkling rain in search of a store. First stop, one block away on 3rdAvenue. Carrots, onions, avocado, but no zucchini. On to 5thAvenue. Closed. On to 10thAvenue–didn’t see one right away and was considering if it was worth it to continue to 15thAvenue. How much did I really want it? And then Bingo! A zucchini! Back home and cooked the curry. So far a pretty riveting story, yes? J


Early that day, I was in an online poetry class where the poet was talking about the change in his life from flying all over the world giving talks and dealing with jet lag. In this respect, our lives were parallel and he noted that one blessing of no-travel was less wear and tear on his body. I could relate. Arriving somewhere after a long plane ride, meeting the welcome hotel bed, but often awakening in the middle of the night and having to teach for six hours the next day. The first three days of teaching wrapped in a kind of fog as my body in canon was trying to catch up to itself. That moment were I could feel the click, the two bodies merging and back to normal. But then in a few days or a week or so, the return trip and another three days of the jet lag drama as I returned to teaching kids at school. Wear and tear indeed. 


How to connect these two stories? Both were trials asking me how much I was willing to sacrifice for what I thought I cared about. How much did it mean to me that I was willing to walk the 20 blocks round trip and contemplate 30 blocks just for one zucchini? How much did it matter to me that I was willing to get a visa if necessary, pack my bags, take the BART train to the airport, fly from 3 to 17 hours, teach for three days in a jet-lag stupor on one end and another three of the same the other end? Apparently, enough that I did it time and time again regularly during the last 30 years. 


Now the level of sacrifice is simply agreeing to sit in a chair facing a screen and especially with the opportunity to walk out in the world for three hours after sitting for three hours, the body is indeed much happier, the ozone layer is happier, the time freed up from not traveling, preparing to travel, re-orienting after travel is appreciated. 


And yet, I would get on the 20-hour flight to Australia in a heartbeat for the chance to actually stand in a circle holding hands with people and spend the day singing, dancing, playing music together. I do care about it enough to make that sacrifice, jet lag and all. 


And then after the workshop, I’d walk to the store to buy a zucchini. 

But only 10 blocks. 


Sunday, January 24, 2021

My Life on Zoom

Starting in the mid-80’s, I thought much, wrote much and spoke much about the dangers of too much screen time, be it TV, computers or video games. And now, Zoom is one of my best friends! In just the past three weeks, I’ve…


• Had a board meeting with the Orff-Afrique folks.

• Had a board meeting with SF International Orff Course.

• Gave a workshop to folks in Iran.

• Gathered with American Orff teacher elders.

• Gathered with the family-reunion folks on my wife’s Dad side.

• Gave a workshop on games.

• Sung New Year’s and protest songs with school alums.

• Sung the same with my granddaughter’s 3rd grade.

• Talked (with my family) and interviewed my wife’s 94-year old aunt who worked for women’s rights. 

• Attended an interview with jazz violinist Regina Carter.

• Gave a private Orff lesson to a man from Iran.

• Took a poetry class with David Whyte. 

• Met with my Men’s Group.

• Gave a 5 hour Orff workshop (my longest) to folks in Orange County and beyond.

• Took a class about dance in Orff Schulwerk from my colleague Christa Coogan.

• Was a surprise guest in my daughter’s 5thgrade class (well, technically that was Google Meet).


In the next few weeks, I will:


• Meet up with my jazz band for the first time since the pandemic.

• Teach a guest college class for University students in Texas. 

• Interview Kofi Gbolonyo for an article about African music and Orff Schulwerk.

• Teach an Orff workshop to folks in Verona, Italy.

• Teach the first of my 6-classes on Jazz History: The Be-bop Years.

• Teach two benefit workshops for the Orff Forum with teachers on every continent.

• Meet up with the New Year’s Walk group of family friends who have walked and dined together for 39 years.

• Meet up again with old college friends who Zoomed in the Fall.

• Meet up again with old students and teachers from the Arthur Morgan School where I taught in 1972-3 who also Zoomed in the Fall.


Thanks to Zoom, this retired teacher in a sheltered pandemic can enjoy his solitude walking and biking in the park while still keeping connected to others and his lifelong work on a screen. Whoever imagined this former Luddite thanking an electronic delivery system? 


But I do. 


Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Wound and the Awakening

“You can’t talk racists out of their racism. They have to have an experience that breaks them down to their essence so they realize two things: an awareness that I am really wounded and the reason I put all this pain on other people is that I’m denying my own woundedness and my own internal inferiority and since I don’t want to deal with it, I put it on other people. That’s the dynamic of racism”


This gem from Michael Meade’s recent talk goes far in making clear the work ahead. Biden’s executive orders are welcome and necessary. Accountability for the traitors, especially the enablers in Congress, is both an affirmation of justice and a warning to those who thought they had permission to be above the law, including the deposed tyrant. Re-working of laws to root out systemic, institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the like are essential. 


But all of this is just a safety net to minimize the damage of our cultural failures, our educational failures, our family-raising failures and our personal failures. If people felt whole in their own soul, were wholly awake in their critical thinking skills, where able to distinguish truth from lies and good character from bad, where able to care about truth and good character…well, it would be a different world indeed. 


Hard to say something new about the catastrophe of these last four years, but I think Meade hits an important point that doesn’t make into the news. It’s not just a political problem, it’s a deep psychological, mythological, spiritual problem of how we acknowledge, look at and deal with our wounds. We are all, after all, the walking wounded, carrying different levels of hurt and even trauma in our bodies and minds. No one gets away with a sorrow-free life and even if you are so fortunate to have had the most loving parents, good food and pleasant shelter, a fabulous school with a great music program and no deaths beyond your pet hamster, life will eventually find you and that means disappointment, betrayal, injustice, lost love, lost loved ones. Not to mention your own failures to be wholly the extraordinary person you hoped to be, the facing of the hard truth that you feel less than others, inferior in some ways and ashamed of it all.  


All of these blows leave wounds and now the question is how you will meet them. Welcome to the world of drug addiction, alcoholism, money addiction, abusive behavior, depression, denial, the fortressing of the heart to avoid the next attack. Sometimes the wounds go inward to depression, sometimes outward to rage and in that case, they feel “better” if you have a target, something or someone else to blame it on.


Enter Trump and his ilk. Here is a man willing to offer the targets and stoke the fear—the Muslims, the Mexicans coming in mass mobs, the blacks taking your jobs, the Democrats limiting your freedom to drive your SUV, stockpile assault weapons, live away from the people with darker skin. Now your personal unwillingness to face your demons and acknowledge your inferiority is wrapped in a good and evil cause, elevates you to a crusader, armors you with fanaticism and joins you with the others who are also to scared to admit that they are wounded and need to look strong and tough, to take on the archetype of the warrior. And to go so far as to storm the Capitol in the name of patriotism. 


Trump also gave them another kind of permission, a living example of someone who was emotionally abandoned by both his parents and spent his life covering up his deep wound, a man who is like a hungry ghost with a vacant soul trying to fill up the empty space with constant adoration, trying to satiate his soul’s hunger with the food of unquestioned admiration that never fills him up for more than five seconds. For those wanting affirmation of their own choice to deny their wounds, he’s their guy. Heck, he became the President of the United States! 


And now here’s Joe Biden, a man who was deeply wounded by the death of a wife, son and daughter and owns that grief, acknowledges it, works with it. He consciously creates a memorial ceremony for the 400,00 Americans who have died from Covid and gives it the solemnity and gravitas it deserves. And Kamala Harris— while I don’t know the specific stories of her wounds, I know that as a black person and a woman in this country, she has had more than her fair share. To have this country run by two people who understand grief is one of the most extraordinary turns we have taken as a nation. 


And as Meade makes clear, Grief’s companion is Joy and we saw it, the descent of the Memorial the night before and the ascent rising up singing in the Inauguration and the after-party the day after. It’s not a mean-spirited Joy—“We (the Democrats) won!! In your face, Repugnicans!” but an inclusive “We all won a chance to be better than we've been.” For once we acknowledge our own wounds, we find ourselves connected to everyone else who has them—which means “everyone else” and can truly move from “me against you” to “we.” Nothing unifies so much as grief. Nothing unifies so much as joy. 


Finally, Meade notes that traditional initiation ceremonies have two parts— a descent into the wounds and ascent awakening into our larger—and better—self. That’s where we are. And it’s a beautiful place to be. More grief awaits and let’s not tap dance around it. Let’s dance through it and rise up joyfully—together.


Friday, January 22, 2021

The Founding Mothers

Did anyone notice who carried the day in that stirring and soulful Inauguration? There was Amanda Gorman, speaking with the body, voice and mind the words that soothed our troubled soul and awakened our determined spirits. Wise beyond her years at 22 years old. There was Kamala Harris representing the long-deferred dream of women finally given a voice high in the halls of power so that the dream doesn’t fester, crust over or explode, but can say its piece in measured speech. There was firefighter Andrea Hall who spoke and signed the Pledge of Allegiance in a way that made clear: “I said it, I meant it, I’m here to represent it!”


The night before the Inauguration, at the much overdue and sorely needed memorial for the 400,000 Americans who have died from Covid, the necessarily sparse words and eloquent silence were given yet fuller voice by nurse Lorie Marie Key singing Amazing Grace and Yolanda Adams singing Hallelujah. I believe those heartfelt and heart-sung notes helped carry the ungrieved dead to the ancestral lands where their loved ones awaited them. 


The “Celebrate America” event after the Inauguration had its own happy blend of music, poetry, appreciations (including a brief shot of an Orff xylophone in the part honoring teachers!!), but for me the highlight was watching the two women on the side signing the words of the songs. They were dancin’!!! Never have seen such infectiously joyful interpretations in sign language and in case, you missed it, go back and check it out. The facial expressions and whole body amplifying further what the hands had to say. 


All those folks mentioned above had one thing in common. They were black women. I, for one, would like to physically and metaphorically get down on my knees and thank black women for being the carriers of true democracy in this land. The white Founding Fathers planted the seed of the idea and ideals of democracy, but I nominate American black women as the ones who actually birthed that baby and raised it. Carried it in their bodies, endured the agonizing labor of giving birth, swaddled and held and breast-fed that baby, changed its diapers, helped it learn how to walk and talk, organized the doctor visits and drove it to soccer practice, helped it with its homework, taught it how to be fair and kind and clean its own room, how to work hard and persevere, soothed its scraped knees and got it up and back on the bike. While they did the day-to-day work of giving body and soul of airy ideals, the fathers sat in their good-ole-boys club smoking cigars and making up laws to keep democracy the small province of gentlemen who owned land. 


What makes this yet more extraordinary is that these black women began their tenure torn from their homeland, stuffed down into the dark holds of ships, unloaded like cargo, taken away from their families, bought and sold, beaten and raped, made to work sun-up to sun-down in scorched cotton fields or in the house taking care of the slave-masters’ children. All while these propertied “gentlemen” sat on their porch sipping mint juleps and talked about the honor of the South.


So join with me in honoring the true carriers of democracy, from the founding moment to yesterday’s inauguration. Speak their names out loud like the long beautiful poem they are— Phillis Wheatley. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Ida B. Wells. Rosa Parks. Fannie Lou Hamer. Shirley Chisholm. Angela Davis. Michelle Obama, Susan Rice, Alicia Garza/ Patrice Cullors/ Opel Tometi, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris. Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Oprah Winfrey, Nikki Giovanni. Norma Miller. Pearl Primus. Katherine Dunham. Bessie Smith. Ella Fitzgerald. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Marian Anderson. Mary Lou Williams. Hazel Scott. Mahalia Jackson. Big Mama Thornton.Nina Simone. Carmen Macrae. Nancy Wilson. Natalie Cole. Dionne Warwick. Gladys Knight. Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin—and so many more. 


And next time you pass a black woman on the street, take a moment to thank her. And then get to work and follow their example. And yes, I'm talking to you (us), white men!

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Feelin' Good

“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for us. And we’re feeling good.”


A song is often a good way—in fact, often the best way— to marry meaning and emotion and sing out what you feel. And so this song written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who also wrote another anthem of hope “Gonna Build Me a Mountain”) and sung so soulfully by Nina Simone, captures a tiny bit of my feeling after watching that most moving and most needed and most timely of Inauguration Ceremonies. So open up Youtube and sing along! 


And I mean everyone. As expressed in a blogpost a while back, those who didn’t vote for Biden and Harris won as much as those who did. They won a chance to curtail the pandemic that devastates us all, pay attention to the climate change that threatens us all, to consider draining the hate from their heart that hurts them as much as they people they choose to hate, to consider that life is a helluva lot more fun when you choose to simply enjoy people without imprisoning them in your categories and our chances for survival are a helluva lot better when we join forces. After all, neither the pandemic nor the fires nor the storms nor the god or gods you think are on your side only gives a rat’s ass for your ideologies and dogma and group names. So give up your loyalty to your worst self egged on by that lunatic now gone—what was his name again?— and join in the song. Trust me, you will be so much happier and so will your children and so will we all. Okay?


Now sing along with Nina!  https://youtu.be/zADj0k0waFY


Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin' on by, you know how I feel

It's a new dawn, It's a new day, It's a new life for me
And I'm feeling good

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River running free, you know how I feel
Blossom on a tree, you know how I feel

It's a new dawn, It's a new day, It's a new life for me
And I'm feeling good


Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know
Butterflies all havin' fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that's what I mean
And this old world is a new world, and a bold world, for me. (us!)

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Letter to My Grandchildren


Dear Zadie and Malik, 


In just 16 hours from now, we will come to the end of an era error and the future you deserve will begin again. I have waited for this moment for four long agonizing years, years I couldn’t imagine I could endure. And yet somehow I did. We all did. We got mad, we got sad, we were outraged, we were struck dumb wondering how this could have happened. But we also got together and we spoke out and we wrote postcards and signed petitions and gave money and put our bodies out on the streets and our thoughts on our clever signs and our marks on the ballot. And lo and behold, it made a difference and the man who spent every waking minute selling your future down the river will be exiled from his throne of power, leaving in disgrace with even many (but not all) of his staunch supporters and enablers cutting themselves loose from his adoring fan club. Not a moment too soon. 


You both began life with one of the finest Presidents the country has ever had. Things were so promising when you started out. The first black President, a black woman bass player (Esperanza Spalding) playing jazz at the White House, more women in Congress than ever had been before and doors that had been closed for so long finally starting to open. 


Zadie, as a girl, you can play any sport you please, aim for just about any profession you please, be proud of your talented math-skills without even considering that you have to hide them, outrun every single boy in your class (you can!). If someone makes nasty comments to you or touches you when you don’t want them too, you don’t have to keep silent and they will get in trouble. In the future, you can marry whom you please—black or white, Buddhist or Jewish, man or woman. (Or choose to remain single, of course). I imagine you are thinking, “Duh! Of course I can!” but even a mere 50 years ago, it wasn’t easy or even possible. 


And Malik, you can be wholly the sensitive boy you are and cry freely and love whatever or whomever you love without apology. Now you know you could be President (not the best job, by the way) or a poet and if you wanted to play classical music instead of jazz or hip-hop, you could. Or all three. You will have support when you choose to respect all people and appreciate women as your friends, colleagues and equals. And though you might get teased or bullied by boys or men with small hearts who confuse strength with hurting and harming others, you will be able to find others like you who find strength in kindness. 


These are all good signs. These are the things your grandmother and I fought for almost 50 years ago (and are still fighting for), things your Mom, Dad and Aunt are fighting for now, things that, truth be told, you both will probably have to continue to fight for. But hopefully not quite so much because of the work that came before.


And yet. While I write this, you are hiding in an Air B&B away from your house because there were some suspicious people in your yard and strange vans on the street and your parents are worried about Inauguration Day and all the unleashed dogs fed by this lunatic man who somehow was chosen to lead this country. I share their caution. All of us are nervous about what might happen tomorrow in a ceremony which, until this moment, has always been a sacred moment in the history of our country. 

This is not good. This is not normal. This is not what any of us ever dreamed could come to pass after each new victory against racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental destruction, capitalist greed, military stockpiling. We thought that once the right door opened, everyone would happily walk through. We (or at least I) couldn’t have predicted how important it was to so many people to keep their identity based on white supremacy, male dominance, heterosexual status, “Christian” values and how ferociously they would cling to it, to the point of wanting to overthrow the very government that they professed to love. 


And yet again. Just think of how far we have come! (I know, because I know how it was before). The casualness with which my colleague James can introduce his husband Dan, the way your white Mom and black Dad can go to some restaurants and no one looks twice, the way the Portland Moms and then grandma’s and grand-dads and then leaf-blower-equipped Dads stood up so bravely to protest murders by police, the way just about every house in your neighborhood has a sign that says “Science is real. Women’s rights are human rights. Black Lives Matter. No person is illegal. Love is Love.” We have made progress.


We were heading to the cliff’s edge and enough of us woke up in time to make a sharp turn and get back on the real road. Driven by a caring, hard-working intelligent man as President and our first female/ black/ Indian Vice President. And the First Lady is a teacher!! How about that?! And instead of tweeting out mean-spirited and hateful messages that divide, instead of stirring up violence, instead of bragging about a self that is a shame to our species, Mr. Joe Biden talks about unity, mourns the pandemic deaths, is already hard at work on actual plans to recover from this severe blow. After fingernails on a chalkboard, this is music as beautiful as Bach and as swingin’ as Sonny Rollins.


And so on this night before this moment we have waited for for so long, all I see is your beautiful faces and your future that we’re all fighting for. You are blessed to have two such loving parents, an extraordinary aunt and grandparents who love you beyond what any arms can stretch to show. Tomorrow Joe and Kamala take the seat and that disgraceful little boy in a man’s body will be confined to his golf cart or (hopefully) prison cell and we can begin this work again.


For both of you. 


For all of us. 


Happy Inauguration Day!!






Monday, January 18, 2021

Out of the Tunnel

If my own adult children are any standard of measurement, there about 12 people left in America who are willing to watch old black and white movies. But in honor of MLK Day and the coming Inauguration and for my own sheer pleasure, I watched Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Again. 

It holds up. And with some new meaning. There was Jimmy Stewart with glazed eyes staring at the Capitol Building like a pilgrim finally arriving at a Sacred Temple. His eyes are open with wonder as he passes the stones carved with words like “Equal Justice” and at the end of the film, after more than 7 hours of non-stop talking on the Senate floor about the graft and lies he's discovered in Congress, gasps out something about the bad guy “Mr. Taylor and his army marching into the Capitol…” before fainting on the floor. The parallels are astounding. 


Earlier in the film, he talks about his Dad teaching him to look at the beauty of this world as if coming out of a tunnel and seeing it for the very first time. Ah, there’s an image. Because we have one more day in the tunnel with the World Record Liar-in-Chief and if the law and order folks do their job, the armed lunatics will not be waiting for us, but behind us, hopefully behind bars. The beauty that awaits is no Shangri-la paradise, it will be fraught with the enormous challenges of the continued pandemic, the ongoing climate change, the wild dogs let out and equipped by the NRA and the enormous job of simply cleaning up the mess of four years of utter incompetency and uncaring. But simply being out of the tunnel will let the hardy plants of human kindness and simple decency (again, see the film and let Mr. Smith tell you) rise up through the cracks in the concrete. 


One more day. 


“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”              - Walt Whitman: from Song of Myself

Everyone has their favorite idea of what separates human beings from animals, usually not with Whitman’s humble perspective, but more an arrogance about what makes us so special. As a member of the homo sapiens species, I do appreciate our place in the evolutionary chain, but also am painfully aware of how what blesses us also curses us and spend my days both celebrating the blessings and lamenting the curses. Consider some of the commonly accepted turns in evolution that moved us from being a small population low on Creation’s list— not as fast as cheetahs, large as elephants, agile as monkeys, fierce as lions, numerous as cockroaches, etc.—to overrunning the earth at 7 billion plus. Note how each “advance” that has blossomed into our glorious achievements also carries the seeds of its own demise:

• The opposable thumb that makes it possible for us to invent the wheel, write like Emily Dickinson, play Chopin’s piano music and send loving e-mails to friends far and wide also can text hate messages, pull triggers on AK47’s and push the nuclear button. 

• Bi-pedalism that allows us to stand upright frees our hands to work with tools, allows us to see further and lets us dance like the Nicholas Brothers also takes us further away from the earth, gives us fallen arches and back problems and reduces us to talking heads on TV standing at podiums. 

• Language that makes Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Mary Oliver’s poems and Dickens’ novels possible also can incite hateful dolts to storm the Capitol Building and be like, uh, totally, I mean, awesome.

• Music that gives us the capacity for West African drumming, Indian raga, jazz be-bop, European symphonies and beyond also gives us Muzak on elevators, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and disco. 

 • Storytelling that gives us the Iliad and the Odyssey, The Ramayana, Shakespeare’s plays, Tolstoy novels, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Frank Capra/ Hitchcock/Fellini films also gives us The Valley of the Dolls and the recent movie Four Christmases. Our capacity to create the story of the life we live in can give us a narrative of a meaningful existence that accents beauty, justice, compassion, sustainability, living harmoniously with each other, plants and animal or a narrative that thrives on raw survival-I’m-number-one-get-yours-now subsistence in a cruel and meaningless world built on exclusion, hatred, abuse, escape through drugs, greed, selfishness, ignorance, distraction, sensation and violence. 

• The neo-cortex layer of the brain that makes Bach’s fugues, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence possible also can conjure up theories of racial superiority, invent the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, dream up the notion of the Apocalypse. 

In short, everything that was evolutionary with the development of these human attributes was also counter-evolutionary in terms of both the health of the planet and now the survival of the species. So where does that leave us?

Precisely where a fairly evolved storyteller named John Steinbeck placed us in his novel East of Eden: the territory of choice. As spoken by his character Lee:

 There are millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do Thou’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But  the Hebrew word timshel—“Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. And that’s what makes a man great, what gives him stature with the gods…a cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. But we have the glory of a choice.

And of course, the responsibility to make a wise choice. Now more than ever. 


Sunday, January 17, 2021

Yelling at Cars

The despisers of mankind—apart from the mere fools and mimics—are of two sorts. Those who believe their merit neglected and unappreciated, make up one class; those who receive adulation and flattery, knowing their own worthlessness, compose the other. Be sure that the coldest-hearted misanthropes are ever of this last order.– Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

Thank the heavens for Stephen Colbert. He remains the voice of sanity mixing humor with serious in-depth understanding of what’s going on, a clear moral compass and the good sense to invite conversations with others who can shed new light on  a variety of important (and sometimes frivolous- still a place for that) subjects. One of his recent guests on the “important” side was former FBI Director James Comey. 


I was at first surprised and then intrigued to hear Comey say that T**** shouldn’t be prosecuted in Washington, not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because it’s what he wants—to stay in the public spotlight and keep steering the ship of our everyday discourse. Comey noted that T****'s pathological need for constant adulation, attention and flattery is the oxygen he breathes and suggests his worse punishment would be to deprive him of that air. He’s already gasping with the loss of his Twitter account. To just leave him alone to be a sorry old man “yelling at cars in Mar a Lago” would be the ultimate punishment. 


An interesting perspective! I’d still prefer him to be shouting out the barred windows of his solitary confinement in prison as a message to any future imposters that there will  be consequences and alongside the 64 judges who turned down Rudy Guiliani’s fantasy that the votes were illegitimate, a sign that the Justice System, while still terribly broken (white cop murderers given a mere slap on the hand), it hasn’t completely collapsed.


At many times during T****’s Reign of Horror and the cliff-edge danger of democracy’s collapse, I said there were three things that distinguished us from Nazi Germany, North Korea, China, Turkey, etc. 


1) Free Speech: Colbert, Trevor Noah and even me in this blogposts could have been jailed, disappeared, murdered, without it, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post.


2) The Legal System: As above, the court’s refusal (including the Supreme Court) to declare the election invalid.


3) Term Limits and the Right to Vote: No matter how horrible a President may be, we only have to endure it for 4 to 8 years and have the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power with the simply act of filling out a ballot. 


And that we did and while we take to the pandemic streets in a cavalcade of cars to celebrate the upcoming inauguration (with FBI on the alert, please), we can finally ignore that sad, sad man yelling at us from the sidelines, left to the solitary prison of his own worthlessness.


Three more days. 


Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Real Real Estate

I was happily going to write a post called “June in January.” It’s a sweet little song by Leo Robin and also how I felt walking through the park and suddenly finding myself enveloped in fog. Fog in San Francisco is a summer thing, not something that usually happens in January!


But then I came home and made the mistake of looking at the AOL Headlines and reading about the upsurge of far right loonies who are now even denouncing Trump—just as they chanted to “hang Mike Pence” and just as Trump decided not to pay Guiliani. No loyalty with these people, just one person after another thrown under the bus while the psychopaths—those with college degrees who were elected to Congress and those fooled by the former to think they were in the club— want to get rid of anyone who isn’t useful to them or blindly agree with whatever they want to believe. I apparently had 8 people read my last blog on the difficult path of learning how to be yourself, while these extremists seem to be attracting thousands of new recruits each day. It’s enough to make a hopeful person feel just a tad despondent. 


But I soldier forward—well, “music teacher” forward— with the idea that real education and reflective thought and the intention to try to understand things make a difference. And so I offer the Indian chakra system as a lens through which to see what’s going on, what has always gone on and what might someday go own just a little bit less. 


A Hindu expert might find my explanations simplistic and off-base, so I’ll excuse myself from the start to say that even if they’re wrong in not capturing the nuances, the basic ideas are useful to me and just might be to you. I’m less interested in whether they’re “true” or not or more interested if they illuminate something close to the truth about what it means to be human. 


The lowest chakra at the base of the spine is simply the survival instinct, the need for food and such. The second at the genitals is about—you guessed it—sex and our instinct to propagate the species and have a good time in the process. The third in the stomach area is about power—our desire to bend the world to our wants and needs. These first three, in a different point of reference, are like the brain stem, or the reptilian brain. They come for free and little effort is needed to access them. Human beings stuck in these three levels are people who have not fully owned their human incarnation and simply throw their animal selves around helter-skelter. 


But even the most “enlightened” amongst us is still somewhat at the mercy of the essential impulses. (Look at all the sex scandals amongst priests, yogis, Zen masters, etc!). And popular culture thrives on them. That’s why despite our intellectual understanding that it is demeaning and counter-evolutionary to use sexy women images to sell cars, cigarettes, what have you, we simply haven’t stopped. Even jazz record producers still seem to want Diana Krall and Jane Monheit to pose in alluring postures on the covers of their CD's. Sex sells. 


And so does violence. And what young boy— and more and more girls these days—can resist the war movies and super-heroes and Terminators and constant explosions? Very few. And that counts for adult men—and a few women—as well. Madison Avenue has known this for a long time and now with 500 channels competing for attention, they know that a sex scene and/or explosion will grab your attention. And notice how often those two are often combined. Throw in alluring food in the advertisements— the Pepsi’s and Big Macs and Coors beer— and you got yourself a culture fed on the bottom three chakras. And then the news jumps in with their "if it bleeds, it leads" mission statement and our entire national discourse is reduced to food, sex, power. Are you with me?


The Heart Chakra is where the human experiment begins, where the reptilian brain stem moves to the mammalian cortex and the need to nurse the young and care for them awakens emotion, warmth and eventually, love. Though instinctive in nursing mothers, this level requires more conscious effort and it is here that the simple sensation of sex can be married (literally) with the emotion of love. 


The 5thchakra is at the level of the throat and I associate this with Buddha’s Right Speech, with the maxim “use your words,” with the proverb “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Again, the raw power of Chakra 3 is transposed through education and human effort to feel a sense of inner power and to relate through civil discourse rather that punching each other out. 


The 6thchakra is in the middle of the forehead and is known as “the third eye,” that awakened wisdom to see clearly, to transform the physical food of Chakra 1 into the wisdom food for the Soul of Chakra 6. Nurtured through attention, insight, dedication to detaching from the grip of the instinctual levels, we are ascending to the higher levels of a human incarnation. 


And finally the 7thchakra is at the top of the head, where we are crowned with the experience of being wholly a part of everything and everyone else, no duality, just the bliss of an awakened consciousness. We have moved from “I against Thou” in the three lower chakras up through “I and Thou” of the next three and finally to the “We” of the final one. 


Is this interesting? Can we see how many people are in the grip of the first three, spread by leaders who should know better to stay there under the mantra of “their ignorance is as good as your education,” who have been steadily indoctrinated (thanks, Fox News and Right Wing radio) into the doctrine that the world is a dangerous place and only the strong survive and you better get yours before someone else takes it and by the way, the people who are coming to take it are black, brown, women, gay, trans and Democratics, so sure, go ahead and bring your guns into the Capitol because that’s the sensible thing to do in our world view. Preferably while we’re out playing golf. 


So let’s move the national dialogue from the red state/ blue state, rural/urban, working class/ educated spin and figure out—and it better be soon—how we all can live in the 4th, 5thand 6thchakras. And elect leaders close to the 7th. That’s the real estate deal of the future. 


And remember the three rules of Real Estate?






So pick the neighborhoods of 4, 5, 6, or 7 and welcome neighbor!

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Just Be Yourself

There they are— the three most challenging words in the English language. It’s easy to say, as Oscar Wilde did, that “you might as well be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” No one has our exact appetites, our way of thinking, our way of walking, our way of feeling. Not a single one out of 7 billion—and more if you count all those who have come before us and all those after. Just simply by the act of being born we are stamped with an individuality that no one else can copy.


But to truly be yourself means to wholly claim your own way of thinking, feeling, moving, doing, your own way of failing, your own way of succeeding. All of which would be easy if we didn’t have something called a family or a church or a school, if we didn’t have a culture or a religion or an economic class. Because none of these groups want the whole you. They only want the parts that are convenient to their agenda or their fantasy of who you should be or their hope of what they want you to be. And so each day is a grinding friction between the you you actually are and the you that has to give up small or large chunks of yourself in order to fit in. With a spouse or a peer group or a political group or a racial identity or a national identity. In order to preserve some sense of accord with each group, some sense of order and harmony, you check little parts of yourself at the door before you enter and those parts start to add up until you’ve lost the conversation with the depth of your own soul. It’s not easy and we all go through it.


Its difficulty is its gift. For if you have the courage to claim and re-claim the authentic parts of your deep soul, not the superficial “I like pizza and the color blue” parts, but the slowly cultivated revelation of “This is who I’m meant to be and what I’m meant to give back to life,” your difficult life—and it will be difficult, believe me—will be redeemed and found worthy. 


As someone somewhat in a small public spotlight giving workshops, I’m not the least bit flattered by the little affirmation in the chat, “You’re awesome!!!!!” But when someone recently wrote this next sentence to me, it moved me greatly:


"I want to thank you because you helped me be more me by being wholly you."


All the years of speaking out what people didn’t want to hear, of standing for something that few people cared about, of feeling excluded from club after club who didn’t want someone like me for a member, all were redeemed by this simple sentence of thanks. 

Because besides the richer life that you yourself will live claiming your authentic self in the face of the world’s determination to ignore, reject or shut it down, you will serve as an inspiration for others to “be more me.” And furthermore, each person who accepts that difficult invitation is not vulnerable to the extremist, fanatical, fundamentalist groups, be they religious or political, that offer a cheap identity at the price of wholly swallowing your authentic self. Stepping toward your true self is a vote for life, for truth, for beauty.


“Just be yourself”—I recommend it.



Travel Ban

If life it a journey, what do we call this?  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Wrong Mistakes

“The Monk runs deep” is the prevailing notion about Thelonious Monk and it’s correct. I’ve been a lifetime fan of his music and now 2/3rds through Robin Kelley’s extensive biography, I’m both intrigued and inspired by him as a person. I love the stories about him as a family man and guy in the neighborhood and love the way he’s constantly teaching the musicians around him, offering the advice that precisely hits the target of their next step of development. 

Like his comment after listening to a pianist:


“You’re playing the wrong mistakes.”


That stops you in your tracks. Huh? But if you sit with it for awhile, the light goes on. The wrong mistakes are the ones that you make trying to copy someone else and failing (as you always will). The right mistakes are the ones that are 100% yours, the kind that no one else can make the way you do, the kind that lead you to the expression—musical or otherwise—that you were meant to offer to the world. 


Another one of my favorite Monk stories is about the college who hired him to critique their jazz band. He listened attentively and when they finished, everyone waited breathlessly to hear his comments. They were probably expecting things like, “The drummer should switch to the ride cymbal on the bridge” or “Consider this substitute chord in bar 15.” Instead, Monk just stroked his beard and said:


“Keep on tryin’.” (Check, please.)


I think of this often. At the end of the day, what else is there to suggest?


Like I said. The Monk runs deep.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Back to Kindergarten

“Let us make our education brave and preventive. Politics is an after-work, a poor patching…

We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education.”


-      Ralph Waldo Emerson


It was time. My wife had been complaining that the books on my bedside table were spilling over and finally, even I got tired of the overflow. So today on a day that threatened a rain that never came, I decided to dive in. And there were all the books that I put close by thinking that one or the other should be next on my list— and lo and behold, a few years later, there they were, still unread. And looking over them today, it became clear that many would remain unread. And so I trudged over to our local independent bookstore and traded eight books in for $28 worth of credit. Yeah!


But one of the treasures I uncovered was a book called Emerson on Education and I opened it up to this quote. Astounding. He summarizes in a few sentences what I’ve known intimately my whole life, but never so much as these last four years. And yet more powerfully these last four days! 


Every single person who makes it in the news with the next outrageous behavior or statement betraying a complete lack of moral compass, intelligence and overall human decency, I wonder about their family, about their neighbors, about their church. But I particularly wonder about their school. How could they have graduated from an elementary or high school or college without learning how to be better? Remember that book “Everything I Need to Learn I Learned in Kindergarten?” Things like how to share with others, how to help with clean-up, how to play fair and follow the rules, how to say “thank you” and “please”? Don’t lie. Don’t be a bully. Use your words. What happened to that kindergarten self? 


And so Mr. Emerson, I agree 1000% that if we did our work well in schools, the politician’s life would be so much easier and so much more effective because we would be having civil conversations based on those kindergarten values. Married to adult minds that cultivated their thought and intelligence as well as their heart. In this little book, Emerson also says: 


“It is no proof of a man’s understanding to be able to affirm whatever he pleases; but to be able to discern that what is true is true and that was is false is false—this is the mark and character of intelligence.” (Take note, deluded “stop the steal” folks.)


An intelligent and caring civil discourse is possible. It just happened yesterday as I tuned in to a San Francisco Board of Supervisors dealing with a hospital expansion right in my neighborhood. I listened to people present both sides calmly and articulately, politely asking and answering difficult and challenging questions. I listened for over an hour and then just needed to get out for a walk. I ended up walking for about 3 hours, but when I came back, my wife was still tuned into the same meeting! It went on for yet another hour and by the end, they agreed to postpone the hasty deadline the hospital proposed to be yet clearer about some of the issues. That’s the kind of civil discourse that could be possible once again in this country.


But first we have to pass kindergarten. 



Speaking Out

I took an online class recently with a poet I’ve long admired and enjoyed it as I always do. Except I couldn’t help but notice that we were proceeding as if nothing had happened a few days earlier that merited some acknowledgement. And that made me feel uncomfortable.


So I crafted a letter which I hope to send soon and hope it can get to the poet. Should I share part of it here? I think yes, both because the issue I bring up is our collective issue and because it might be an example of being an ally, of taking the step to speak out when it would be so easy and convenient to say nothing. If the model inspires you to do the same in situations you might encounter, then it is well worth the effort. Decide for yourself. Here's the letter:


Your online classes have been a great pleasure to attend. It seems that we all need a place where we can be sheltered from the news of the day, a respite from the constant battering of the storms of the headlines. A place where we can consider humanity’s timeless and universal questions. 


And yet. We all exist in a particular time and a particular place that offer their own questions to consider and ask to be invited into the larger conversation. As you often say, the conversation you don’t want to have is precisely the one you need to have and might that be as true collectively as it is personally? 


The conversation we keep refusing as a nation (for over 400 years!) is looking at our legacy of racial injustice fueled by a white supremacist narrative. One of the most hopeful signs of this last turbulent year is the increased willingness of white folks to finally break our silence of complicity. That books like How to Be an Anti-RacistSo You Want to Talk About RaceMe and White SupremacyWhite Fragility and yet more have become best sellers is a hopeful sign. And yet armed white folks encouraged by the President can storm the Capitol during a sacred democratic rite of transfer of power without even trying to hide themselves and with hardly any resistance from the police— you know the story. 14,000 people arrested in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, 50 arrested during the recent attempted coup. 


And so I felt uncomfortable in your last session that you made the briefest of passing references to our dark times and we proceeded to consider how to cultivate our future happiness as if nothing had happened. I imagine most of the listeners are white and it felt like yet another example of our unearned privilege to have the needed individual conversations while continuing to deflect the needed collective ones. 


What would feel most useful to me is to consider how to join the two, to look at how each can feed the other, to put the timeless and timely together in the same room to talk. It’s all well and good for our yoga instructors and Zen teachers to remind us to breathe, but perhaps we should consider that this is precisely what George Floyd requested as that policemen kept his knee on his neck for nine minutes until his life was extinguished— and with little consequence and no trial for murder because of our habit of silence. So as much as I enjoyed some of your recent talk, I felt that elephant loom large in the room and I imagine—indeed, would hope—that others might too. 


As you have given me so much food for thought over the years, I offer back this morsel for you to consider as you continue your important, needed and inspiring work. Thanks for listening.