Monday, January 17, 2022

Leonard Bernstein Appetizers


Looking for a quote from Leonard Bernstein that I couldn’t find, I stumbled on others that I’m happy I did find. In the spirit of the one-line snacks from yesterday’s post (and arguably much more interesting) are some select gems from the maestro.


• The joy of music should never be interrupted by a commercial.


• I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.


• Children must receive music instruction as naturally as food, with as much pleasure as they derive from a ball game and this must happen from the beginning of their lives.


• Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… the wait is simply too long.


• I’m no longer sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is Yes.


• To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.


(Compare to Duke Ellington’s: A goal is a dream with a finish line.)


And finally, in honor of Martin Luther King Day:


I believe in people. I feel, love, need and respect people above all else, including natural scenery, organized piety and nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the mountain disappear for me, one person fighting for truth can disqualify for me the entire system which had dispensed it.


Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Virtue of Snacking

Sometimes snacking is as satisfying as cooking a full-blown meal. Sometimes even more so.


As with food, so with writing. It certainly is easier not to have support your thesis statement, give thoughtful examples, make sure the themes are connecting. Just take the sentence as it is, no cooking needed. Like these: 


• Each day, thoughts knock at my door. I let them in and invite them to the table.


• I awaken with my demons and go to sleep with my angels. 


• The line to maturity crosses from milk chocolate to dark chocolate. 


• The disco beat— Satan’s preferred tool of torture. 


• So many joggers running past me. None of them smiling. 


• The i-Phone — the surest way to ruin a sunset. 


• The line between solitude and loneliness is as thin as an early morning bird call, as wide as Johnny Hartman’s voice in the empty housed-night. 


And one from Blossom Dearie singing Blossom’s Blues (borrowed from various folk songs):


• If you don’t like my peaches, baby, why do you shake my tree? (2x)

   Get out of my orchard and leave my peach tree be. 


Just a Little Bit More


When John D. Rockefeller, the world's richest man in his time, was once asked “How much money is enough?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.”


I get it. I dove back into the jigsaw puzzle world and started assembling a new 1,000-piece puzzle at 8 am yesterday. It was a lovely day outside and I fully intended get out and walk, but I kept promising myself, “Just a few more pieces.” And then breaking my promise over and over again. I guess that’s how addiction— or at least obsession—works.


If we are in the grips of its hold, obsessing about jigsaw puzzles is pretty benign. It feeds some neurocircuits in my brain that make me feel wholly engaged and a little bit more alive and alert, gives a steady stream of dopamime rushes as each piece clicks into place and offers some aesthetic satisfaction as the image slowly gathers into coherence. My wife out of town and my children grown and me retired, it’s not taking me away from family or social obligations. If I’m prone to mild addiction, it’s not a bad choice.


In fact, it seems like many of the people we admire are driven by some engine of obsession. Shooting 10,000 free throws, practicing piano eight hours a day, meditating in 7-day intensive Zen sesshin retreats from 3 in the morning to midnight, takes both will power and an inner drive that refuses to stop. With results that bring some measure of pleasure, happiness and healing to both oneself and the world.


By contrast, Rockefeller and his ilk’s obsession with making more and more money just for the sake of making more and more money brings harm to both the soul and society. (More on this in a future blogpost). So if you are blessed or cursed with an obsessive personality, be careful what you choose to do. The “just a little bit more” story perfectly describes my experience yesterday and helps me understand John D. Rockefeller better and feel like we share something in common. The object of our obsession is where we part company.


I finally did get out for a robust walk yesterday. 


At 3:00. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Love Vaccine

I’ve had to face some hard news and hard truths these last few months. Two alum students committed suicide, another attempted it and a fourth is swamped with traumas beyond her capacity to hold. These are all people I knew as smiling kids dancing joyfully in my classes, making beautiful music in my concerts and acting with such fun and flair in my plays. They spent years in our loving, supportive community with many caring teachers watching over them and loyal friends by their side. And still, this. 


I’ve leaned my whole life to what might be called a na├»ve notion that people are mostly good, that much of life can be fair, that a good education can cultivate wise choices. “Not so,” the cynics have been shouting to me for years. “People are rotten to the core, the universe is indifferent and we constantly make foolish choices.” Well, yes, but since we are given both the challenge and blessing of choice, it indeed makes a different when a school makes every effort to know each child, to welcome each child, to praise and bless each child, to give each child the tools to know, value and praise their own best selves. It’s not foolproof— humans are too complex and the factors of family, peers, genes, the soul’s journey all enter into the picture — but there are countless testimonies from our alums as to how our school's gifts to them continue echoing and sometimes have helped draw them back from the abyss. That’s also real.


Though I continue to be loyal to the notion that we all— both institutionally and individually— could do a much better job creating and sustaining loving school communities, these alums above force me to look a hard truth in the face. There is no guaranteed inoculation from pain, suffering, depression, disaster. (Indeed, Buddhist teachings have been telling me the same). 


And yet. For a while, it seemed vaccination made us immune to Covid and now the variants are sneaking past the guards. But note that vaccination indeed does make a difference as to the severity of the case. From what I understand— and I could be wrong— a positive diagnosis for most vaccinated people (though some exceptions from folks with pre-existing conditions) does not mean a rush to the hospital and respirators. Because of the vaccine, it’s more like a mild flu from which one can recover within a few days. For those without vaccines, it’s a much more serious matter. 


So yes, children immersed in supportive, welcoming, effective and loving educational communities are receiving a lifetime vaccine that doesn’t offer full immunity, but makes a difference. A habit of critical thought inoculates them somewhat against crazed conspiracy theories and obvious lies. An education that attends to the social-emotional aspects of learning helps people develop coping strategies when depression or self-doubt sets in. A school committed to social justice teaches people to work beyond their personal pleasures, powers and privileges to contribute to a greater good. A curriculum that pays serious attention to the arts creates people to express the full range of emotion in paints, clay, movements, poems, plays, music, all of which helps steer them away from guns and angry outbursts. A school community built on caring teaches people that we need each other and are available to each other in times of crisis and in times of joy. All these lifetime vaccination that don’t shield us completely from life’s catastrophes, but lessen the impact when they arrive. 


When the young woman shared her attempted suicide on Facebook, I immediately found a photo of her at six-year-old playing an instrument and looking into the eyes of her fellow musician with an infectious smile and loving joy. I wrote to her:


"I am so sorry to hear your difficult, difficult news. It was hard for me to connect it with this beautiful, joyful child I knew. But I know she’s still there with you and I hope you keep her by your side as you move forward.”


My attempt at a vaccine booster to lessen the impact. 


The Omicron Carol

(Yet another blogpost dictated to me in a dream. Sing to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree.”)


1) Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

Thou germ so mean and nasty.

Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

Thou virus everlasting.


You came to us after Delta hit

We’re tired of this pandemic. 


Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

Thou germ so mean and nasty. 


2) Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

We’re in your chains and fetters.

Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

We’re running out of letters. 


Leave us alone who face the facts.

And hang out with the anti-vax.


Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

We’re in your chains and fetters.


3) Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

Your presence is outrageous. 

Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

Why are you so contagious?


You’ve spiked up, now please spike down

Go leave us be, get out of town.


Oh, Omiocron, oh Omicron

It’s time for you to go now. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sinful Jazz Soul Wreckage

One of my Jazz Course students just forwarded some choice quotes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of 1922. Written by upstanding, upright, moral citizens concerned about the debilitating effect of jazz, these choice quotes were the last stand of a prurient repressed Victorian Society terrified of the body’s freedom, fun and sex. In an article by Matthew J. Prigge (real name?) titled “The Year of the Flapper,” he notes: 


Early in 1922, the Journal described jazz a "decadent African rhythms moaned by a saxophone" while dismissing it as "a panacea for nagging housewives, Bolshevism and the sorrows resulting from the Volstead drought" - a reference to the Prohibition legislation. But when it became clear that jazz was the preferred form of dance music for the flappers and the "flippers", "goofs" and "dew droppers" (varieties of boys who chased flappers) she attracted, the matter became more serious. "The sooner we get rid of jazz, the sooner we shall have the return of real national prosperity, " the paper editorialized. "To let boys or girls become jazz addicts is to excite in them sentiments that handicap and debase. It may even be to ensure soul wreckage."


 It continues:  “To respond, as is inevitable, to the musical anarchy, the sensational sounds, the tom-tom of modern jazz," said a representative of the Federated Church Women of Milwaukee, "is to yield to close, improper positions and a series of fatuous squirmings and wrigglings and gyrations."


 To which the flappers of the 1920’s, the Lindy Hoppers of the ‘30’s, the Jitterbuggers of the ‘40’s and 50’s said, “Yeah! Bring it on!” And the musicians did. 


Today I taught two jazz pieces to 7th graders at a school and it gave me great satisfaction in knowing that I was introducing them to sinful jazz soul wreckage. Yeah!



Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Pessimist Club


A long-time fellow teacher at our school instituted a club. She and I were the only members, switching off Presidency depended on who brought the best offering. Titled, “The Pessimist Club,” the idea was to share news items that stretched the boundaries of just how absurd, stupid, bizarre and just plain crazy human beings can be. The stories had to be true, but skirt the boundaries of belief. To give you a taste, here’s a couple I remember from over 30 years of club membership: 


• Two men in the South were having an argument over a passage in the Bible and one of them beat the other one to death...with his Bible.


• 57% of Americans think that we shouldn't teach Arabic numerals in school. Even though, of course, our numerals ARE Arabic. 


You get the idea. The club was put on hold somewhat during our last four years at school (we both retired in 2020) because every day the news was one Pessimist Club item after another. And the echoes of that insanity continue to resound. As in this latest item I found posted in the Daily Kos: 


The Republican assault on the teaching of “divisive concepts” like the existence of racism continues, and a new bill proposed in Indiana makes it ever more clear that this is an all-out assault on public education itself. The bill drew attention when one of its co-authors said that teachers should be impartial in teaching about Nazism. State Sen. Scott Baldwin’s appalling comment came in response to a brave question from history teacher Matt Bockenfeld. 

“For example, it’s the second semester of U.S. history, so we're learning about the rise of fascism and the rise of Nazism right now,” Bockenfeld said at a committee hearing on the bill. “And I'm just not neutral on the political ideology of fascism. We condemn it, and we condemn it in full, and I tell my students the purpose, in a democracy, of understanding the traits of fascism is so that we can recognize it and we can combat it.”

Bockenfeld expressed concern that the bill would prevent that teaching, saying, “Of course, we're neutral on political issues of the day. We don't stand up and say who we voted for or anything like that. But we're not neutral on Nazism. We take a stand in the classroom against it, and it matters that we do.”

Baldwin took exception to that. “I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of” Nazism, fascism, or Marxism, he said. “I believe that we've gone too far when we take a position on those isms ...  We need to be impartial.”


Impartial on Nazism. For as he-who-shall-not-be-named once said, “There are good people on both sides.” And the slaves were happy and well-cared for, the Ku Klux Klan is a respectable civic organization and QAnon is a trustworthy factual research center. That’s what our kids should be learning.


It’s a field day for the Pessimist Club. Anyone want to join?