Friday, October 15, 2021

The Art of the Pitch

My one baseball game of the year I watched yesterday was thoroughly unsatisfying in terms of the excitement that players generate when they actually hit the ball and get on base. This was mostly a game of strikeouts and clearly a pitcher’s game. And yes, there is a subtle drama as the pitcher tries to fool the batter (and yesterday succeeded) with the pitch swerving left or right or down, the speed varying and the unknown of which kind of pitch is coming next. And so I remembered this poem by Robert Francis, comparing writing poetry (or it could be improvising jazz) to pitching: 



His art is eccentricity, his aim

How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,


His passion how to avoid the obvious,

His technique how to vary the avoidance.


The others throw to be comprehended. He 

Throws to be a moment misunderstood. 


Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,

But every seeming aberration willed.


Not to, yet still, still to communicate

Making the batter understand too late.  

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Four Meditations on Watching the SF Giants Lose the Playoff Game Last Night

1) Remember Mary Oliver’s advice:

You must not ,ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life. (Or for your happiness.)


2) Console yourself with this realization: You have just freed up some 20 to 35 hours of your life by not having to view any more games. Good time to finally read Moby Dick, master Chopin’s Impromptu  or learn Coltrane’s Giant Steps in all 12 keys.


3) Secret to happiness when your team is losing? Suddenly switch allegiance to the other team! Go Mookie Betts!


4) Consider the moon and stars when you step outside after the game. No star is trying to slide into the moon, no crowds are cheering, the celestial orbs are all perfectly content to be where they are, slowly circling without ambition, nothing to win or lose. 


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Apples and Walnuts


I took my usual 5-mile walk through the park today, but something felt different. There was a certain feeling in the air that soaked into some ancient part of the psyche—or at least as far back as some childhood recollection. Crisp feeling, slight chill, a familiar smell that sang of “Fall!” Back home had a fresh apple with some walnuts and now taste joined sight, smell and touch to evoke the comfort of Autumn. A few posts ago, I shared the October Song that sent me to the heart of the leaf-falling descent into darkness and the settling in to the solace of home. 


Comfort food. Comfort music. Comfort smells, sights and the touch of the Fall breeze on the skin. We could always use these touchstones in our lives and certainly, now more than ever. It’s tempting to say that once we could just absorb the beauty and not worry about protecting it, but that has never been true for indigenous people encountering the Western conquerors, for our own small farmers in the face of agri-business, indeed, for most anyone in any field dealing with the ravages of time and change and especially, changes imposed by human short-sightedness. But of course, that mandate of protection is hitting more of us, more often and larger than ever before. 


But see how quickly our happiness on a Fall day can go off the rails. Somehow I hope we can immerse ourselves fully in it without the fear creeping in, settle down into the hot tub without the tension of the emergency pager going off. Just eat a crisp red apple with walnuts and savor each bite. When the moment calls for us to rise up and act to defend what we love, we will be acting from that love, pushing the car off our child from the accumulated power of life properly lived and loved. Joy and Justice belong together, like apples and walnuts, walking hand in hand through the crunch leaves on a splendid Fall day.



Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Browsing in the Bookstore

Amazon be damned—I’m a lifelong browser of bookstores and CD/ record stores(Amoeba Records is still alive and well in San Francisco and yes, the vinyl records are coming back!). It’s a pleasure akin to fishing, with the same sensation (he says as someone who has never fished) of having a sense of which kinds of fish lurk below the waters in this particular bookstore aisle, but never knowing which will nibble on the hook. The element of not-knowing, of surprise, of serendipity that this fish chose you, gives a distinct pleasure to the enterprise. 


At the same time, sometimes I’m overwhelmed and feel that there are simply too many to choose from and how does one actually decide? It’s a practice of checking in to some part of yourself to see what you need at the moment. Some of it is time— Medieval times? The Future? 1969? (like the one I just finished—always a winner.) Some is place—China? Norway? Ghana? San Francisco? And of course, some is genre—mystery? Romance? Sweeping family saga?


But truth be told, if you took all the back cover synopses and mixed them together in a salad bowl or in a blender, they all come out pretty much the same.


“The story of a terrible tragedy, the secrets that get revealed, the hard-won redemption that shows the intrepid human spirit.”

 Nobody ever seems to write a book about the reasonably well-adjusted family that have a pretty good time and make good decisions. Who would want to read that? Likewise, no one would ever go to an opera about a couple who falls in love, receives the blessings of their parents and the community, learn to be honest and forthright with each other and content with what each has to offer. Even in music, the classical music listener wants some serious straying from the home theme, some sense of exile before returning to the triumphant closing chords. The jazz listener wants that horn or the singer’s voice to scrape down deep into the marrow of the soul far beyond where polite conversation ever goes. There was a short period of New-Age music where no note was ever in any kind of tension with another, a smooth Jazz station with all the dissonant notes removed, and I imagine that still is played in the yoga class or the dentist office, but it doesn’t satisfy our deep yearning to get down into the muck of it all so the rising up has some value. 


Every wise teacher I’m listening to these days (and always have) agrees that the only genuine path to the spirit is through the wounds of sorrow, suffering and trauma. Don’t wallow in the wound but don’t kid yourself that you can simply walk around it and find the yellow-brick road to Oz. So art is a replay of this in miniature in the safety and comfort of your armchair, with the luxury of imagining that all of this is happening to someone else and at the same time instructing you that there is no someone else—they’re all you. As many yous (and more) as there are books in the bookstores with their back covers acting as if this story is unique. And yes, the time, place, artistry of the writer, idiosyncracies of the characters and details of the story are unique, but the overall narrative is universal. 


In fiction and in life. On one level, everywhere we go is a browsing through a bookstore to discover which story is singing out to us and figuring out how to claim it as our own. Without the damn Prime truck delivering it! 


Monday, October 11, 2021

Which Holiday Will You Celebrate?

 “They willing traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” 

-      From the log of Christopher Columbus meeting the Awarak people for the first time

(p. 1: A People’s History of the United States)


And that is exactly what Columbus did when sponsored in a return voyage by the King and Queen of Spain, with the promise that he would return with “as much gold as they need—and as many slaves as they ask.” He commanded that these native people who had so generously and peacefully shared anything they owned with him had to go out and bring back gold. If they collected a certain quantity within three months, they were given a copper token to hang around their necks. Those without the token had their hands cut off and bled to death. And in celebration of it all, Columbus wrote:


“ Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way…”


And so a wrathful and vengeful God (whose Son preached love) created a mindset based on power, domination, greed, private ownership of material goods, brutality, punishment, violence, intolerance that created a story of White Supremacy, Manifest Destiny and the plundering of the earth that has brought us to exactly where we are. A nation (and world) beset by collective trauma, injustice, climate catastrophe, fear, cynicism, hatred, abuse, purposefully perpetuated ignorance and all the other cancers carried in our cells from these short-sighed ancestors that make it so supremely difficult to wake up each morning and have a nice day. 


But a worldview created by the human mind is one that can also be dismantled by the human mind, a mind that can consider a different worldview created by other human minds. And there are other Ancestors singing in our blood. For example: 


“We love the earth and all things of the earth. Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water is a real and active principle. For the animal and bird world there exists a brotherly feeling that keeps us (the Lakota people) safe among them and so close do we come to our feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood we speak a common tongue.


Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; that lack of respect for growing, living things soon leads to a lack of respect for humans too. So we keep our youth close to its softening influence.” 

                       - Chief Luther Standing Bear (p. 6 of Touch the Earth)


Here is a worldview based on kinship, on interrelations with humans and non-humans, on relationship with the natural world, on a kind and mostly benevolent Great Spirit, on the sense of belonging. A world that can lead us to a new vision of humanity and our place on this precious planet.


One of the chapter in Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost(p. 70) tells a story of some Spanish conquistadors (note the language: conquest) who got separated from their group, wandered until they were taken in by an indigenous tribe and “went native,” learning their ways. The indigenous view of the conquistador culture these Spaniards came from was right on target: 


“We came from the sunrise, they from the sunset. We healed the sick, they killed the sound. We came naked and barefoot, they clothed, horsed and lanced. We coveted nothing but gave whatever we were given while they robbed whomever they found and bestowed nothing on anyone.”


And there you have it. One world view that leans towards death (the sunset), kills the healthy, clothes our vulnerability and barefoot contact with the earth, carries weapons, robs all and gives nothing. Another that arises from the promise of the sunrise, walks in direct contact with the earth, brings healing, lives simply and gives generously. That’s what we’re choosing when we decide whether to celebrate Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. 


On Friday, President Biden officially declared this day its renamed Indigenous People’s Day. That’s a good sign. Yes, the lost children of the conquistadors who have built their identities around conquest and domination and privilege and power and money will sputter and spout and fume on Fox News, but there is a growing movement of folks ready to change the story for the benefit of our healing in the moment and the future of our grandchildren. 

Really, there is no choice as to which to celebrate. Let’s do this. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

On Monk's Birthday

On the occasion of Thelonious Monk’s birthday (he would have been 104 today), I’m sharing a chapter from my upcoming book written for 5th to 9thgraders and beyond. After you read it, comb through your record/CD/ iTunes collection and play one of your old Monk recordings. And if you have to shamefacedly admit that you don’t have any, get beyond the mild guilt I’m throwing at you and start listening now. It’s never too late to do the right thing and listening to Monk is always the right thing!


A man with the unusual name of Thelonious Monk and a woman with the unusual name of the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” De Koenisgwarter were driving together through Wilmington, Delaware when Thelonious asked to stop to get a drink of water from a motel bathroom. As he got back into the car, a policeman came by and asked him some questions. When Monk didn’t answer, Nica explained that he wasn’t feeling well. As she and Monk drove on, the policeman followed. Because Nica was a white woman and Thelonious a black man, the policeman decided to make trouble for them. He pulled them over and demanded that Monk get out of the car. “Why should I?” he answered and refused to move. The police called for back-up and when they arrived, they pulled him by force out of the car. Monk grabbed on to the door handles and they started beating on his hands with billy clubs.  His hands!


It’s important to understand that Monk was a piano player and his hands were his life. They were also his gift to the world. In fact, Nica first heard about Monk through a recording. She was on her way to the airport to fly back to her home in Europe when she stopped to visit a friend who played a Monk album for her. She was so enchanted by the sounds that she listened to it twenty times in a row and missed her plane. In fact, she never went home again but was determined to find this man who could play such beautiful music. It took her six years to find him and they became friends for life.


The police continued to beat Monk and then arrest him for “resisting arrest.” They then illegally searched the car and found some marijuana, a mild drug legal now but illegal then. Nica claimed it was hers, wanting to protect Monk even at the risk of she herself being deported. The case was eventually dismissed because of the illegal search and Monk’s hands and body recovered from the brutal police beating. But this was just the beginning of further trouble. 


In order to work in the small clubs in New York, musicians needed something called a “cabaret card.” Twice before, police had unjustly taken away that card and left him struggling to work for years. At the time of this incident, it had been re-instated, but even thought he was falsely arrested and not convicted of any crime, they took it away again. Aching from the injustice of it all and the prospect of again not being allowed to work in New York, he fell into a deep depression, couldn’t sleep, lost his appetite and eventually checked into the psychiatric ward of a hospital.


Luckily for the world, he did finally recover, resumed composing, recording and giving concerts. Some of them were benefit concerts for organizations working for social justice. He was once invited by a high school student to give a concert in Palo Alto, a city that at that time was troubled by deep racial strife. He accepted and both black and white people sat together in the audience, unified by his music. He used those hands that were hammered by policemen’s clubs to bring happiness to the world. In his own words: 


“I know my music can help bring people together, and that’s what is important. I think that jazz is the thing that has contributed the most to the idea that one day the word ‘friendship’ may really mean something in the United States.” 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Marching Soldiers and Dancing Hippos

I awoke at 4:30 for the usual middle-of-the-night quick trip to the bathroom and snuggled back under the covers in our cold house ready for more sleep. There was a skirmish in the mind going on between images, those messengers of the dream world, and words, those foot soldiers of the day world. The images like to dance with Wordsworth amongst the daffodils and if I see them cavorting around, I’m assured that more sleep is on the way. But those pesky words demand to be lined up in orderly fashion and strut purposefully from here to there, each step in place. Once they start marching, I know I’m doomed and they’ll march me straight out of bed, the colonel demanding that they be written down and properly filed away. And I have no choice but to obediently answer, “Yes sir!”


But somehow the images sweet-talked the soldiers into waiting and now it’s 7:30 in the morning, a more reasonable hour to set this down. Not that it’s necessarily worthy of posterity, but I’ve learned not to argue with the dream-mind, be it operating by night or day. I wonder whether anyone else is awakened and feels the thoughts invading, either the march-formation organized ones or the random ones running through the obstacle course of basic training and thinks, “Damn! That’s it for any sleep tonight.” Whether anyone else notices the images dancing like the fanciful hippos in Fantasia and thinks, “Thank goodness. More sleep is on its way.”


And so to paraphrase St. George from the ritual St. George and the Dragon play:


Now I am awake.

Alive unto this day. 

Let the dancers have their dance

and the soldiers take their pay.


Happy Saturday to all!