Saturday, March 6, 2021

Further Adventures in Grandparenting

The quiet chatter of the grandkids cozied up in their sleeping bags inside their tent. Having spent the night on the land of my nephew Eren and his partner Maya at a country house in Sebastopol, they emerged into a sunny day and went with Maya to gather eggs from the chickens. While waiting for Eren’s pancakes and fresh-orange juice squeezed from the oranges they had gathered the day before from my sister’s orange tree, they sipped hot chocolate around the fire pit and delighting in poking little sticks in and out of the flame. After breakfast, we practiced our frisbee skills and then I taught them my childhood game of SPUD, which now was their favorite game ever. 


From that auspicious beginning, we packed up the car to drive back to San Francisco to arrive in time for Zadie’s Zoom music class taught by… me! Usually she’s in Portland tuning in on the screen from her day care provider, but now she was by my side while Malik took a much-need bath. A fun class about nursery rhymes and how it always seems to make sense to leave out the last line of the rhyme and throw something out the window.


The moment we signed out, we walked out of the house and through the park to meet Maynard Moose and Willy Claflin. Zadie and Malik had spent a snow-bound day enthralled by his stories played on cassette tapes(!) and they were amazed that I knew him! (He actually was my student in an Orff Level I class some 30 years ago.) So I set up the meeting, we lunched on chicken gyros and French fries and he kept them enchanted with three or four Maynard Moose stories, complete with the Maynard puppet itself! 


Well, that should have been more than enough for one day, but no, after buying two books and a double CD from him (the books personally signed!), Maynard left and a friend joined us and gave the kids some chocolate bars. And then we met their beloved Aunt Tita and went on the Ferris Wheel. Their first time and the excitement of getting up high and seeing all of San Francisco!


Enough? Nope, not yet. A short romp at Tita’s house, then come join the monthly neighborhood sing out on the street—50 songs with dancing! Followed by Zadie’s request of take-out Chinese dumplings from a local restaurant she remembered. And then settle in for a movie—The Black Stallion (holds up—truly beautiful) with, of course, fresh-popped popcorn. 


By any standards, that would be a memorable day. And yet in the midst of it, the kids still managed to have a senseless fight in the back seat of the car that required strict admonishment and Zadie melted down when she lost her mask and kept sulking a bit even after it was found. I had a little talk with her about resilience and privately worried that my efforts to create this high standard of rich experience was feeding some sense of life as indeed, rainbows day after day and an expectation that every whim be fulfilled.


So I’m proud to report that when we spotted the ice cream truck we had been looking for in vain the whole week, I resisted getting them an ice cream. This old man can be tough when he needs to be! 

They’re leaving to return to Portland today while my wife and I get our second vaccination. If we have bad side effects, I’m definitely getting myself an ice cream.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Problem Solving

Some people have used the extraordinary capacity of human problem-solving intelligence to create life-saving vaccines, power a rocket to Mars or write an intricate 4-voice fugue. 


Yesterday my granddaughter and I used the same capacity to try to dislodge putty from the trachea of a rubber chicken so it might squawk again. Through ingeniously taping two chopsticks together and a half an hour labor probing down the tube, we indeed extracted most of the putty, but still the poor chicken was mute when we squeezed her. So our next task is to gather our imagination to create an appropriate memorial service for her. 


I know my granddaughter is up to the task because of the imaginative tale she told about how the putty got into the chicken in the first place. A first-rate tall tale of the chicken on the ground with its open mouth facing up, the putty stuck to the edge of the table and beginning to droop over until some it fell into the chicken’s mouth. Then she picked up the chicken and in its upright state, the putty flowed down the tube to block the squeezebox that made the chicken squawk when squeezed. I listened respectfully and concluded with, “That’s quite a story.” And left it at that. Oh, and did I mention that this entire chicken disaster happened while she was theoretically on Zoom for online school?


That’s life with grandchildren.


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Jazz Stories: P.S.

“Search for what unites us; understand that which divides us. “   - Carl Orff


This stunning quote from Carl Orff surprised me. I thought I knew most of his memorable statements, but had never heard this one. In ten short words, he summarizes the trajectory of my life’s passions. Music, dance, poetry and community ritual as the joyous forces that unite us, social justice work as illuminating the narratives that divide us with the intention of refusing their perpetuation. And both present in these little jazz stories I’ve been sharing.


In his book Racism: A Short History, George Frederickson looks at the subject through three cultures based on White Supremacy: the United States, Nazi Germany and South Africa. Isabel Wilkerson makes similar comparisons in the book Caste, substituting India’s caste system for South Africa’s apartheid. Both books are well-worth a read for those seeking to “understand that which divides us.”


I mention it here because when I went to South Africa in 2008 to teach Orff workshops, I was struck by both the similarities and differences with the U.S.’s version of systemic racism. Amongst many of the weird manifestations of cultures based on hate, exclusion and supremacy, there were four large groups out of many ethnicities in South Africa: white folks from Britain, white folks from the Netherlands (Afrikaaners), black folks of Zulu ethnicity, black folks of Xhosa ethnicity. The two white groups held the power, but they also hated each other. The two black groups were victims of oppression, but they also hated each other and had a long history of warfare. 


And so here were representatives of each of the four groups come together in my Orff workshop. My lofty vision was that folks would go off in small groups and come back with a piece of music/ dance that they created, with the rule being that some of each population had to be in each group. My fantasy was that here was a revolutionary healing moment, the four groups that historically hated each other having to come together and create something beautiful together. 


When they re-gathered to perform, the heavens did not part and the light of long-deferred healing and justice descend in glorious beams. The pieces were fine, though short of extraordinary. I said something out loud about how it moved me to note that something unimaginable a mere twenty years ago could be happening and there was a sweet moment of renewed hope in the room. 


But though one reality was that the “music brought us together,” the other was that after the workshop, the black folks would have to take at least two buses or taxis to travel two hours back to their townships and the white folks would return to their homes enclosed behind barb-wired walls and security guards at the entrance to their streets. The musical reality was in sharp contrast to the political reality and both were true. 


All of this is contained in the story of jazz, all of this is present in my work giving Orff workshops around the world. The beauty and uniting force of what happens on the bandstand and in the Orff workshop sometimes (or often) in contrast to the division that still exists outside the club, concert hall or school gymnasium. It’s na├»ve to rest content with the comforting notion that the music is enough, it’s limiting to think that political change alone will bring the deep healing and happiness we seek. What’s most important is that the two remain in conversation. 


This was what I was reaching for in this Jazz Stories little series—one story told through words and history to illuminate divisive practices, the other on the Youtube clip told through the music itself to unite through its power and beauty. I hope someone found this worthwhile—and that Carl Orff would approve.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Modern Day Grandparenting

The grandkids are here, for the first time without their parents and for a whole week. The first three days have simply been marvelous, with more delights to look forward to. Though it came from a gesture to give breathing room to their parents at a needed time, this is no altruistic do-gooder decision. It is (mostly) pure joy and happiness. 


I know that even as a grandparent, I have to be available for comforting skinned knees, friendship issues, hurt feelings. I have to resist a steady diet of ice cream and advocate for spinach. I have to help build resilience and face the harsh truths of this life without promising rainbows day after day. With the added responsibility of helping my mixed-race grandkids navigate through the horrendous legacy of an unchallenged White Supremacy. 


But truth be told, I just want to give them as much happiness and rich experience and fun as is humanly possible. Follow their whims, offer suggestions, insist on some non-negotiables (like the afternoon out-of-the-house “adventure walk” or bike ride), play, play and yet more play. The organized kind, like five different cards games, frisbee/ catch/ paddleball/ soccer, Sorry/ Boggle/ Taboo and the spontaneous kind, like making statues on tree stumps, building stick huts, racing leaves in a stream. 


I want to read great books to them, not just the kind with a punch line and concrete correct message, but the kind with characters/ plots and images that let their imagination soar, with pithy little metaphorical messages that might guide them their whole life— the Little Engine That Could chanting “I think I can! I think I can!,” Owl’s “Tear-water tea that is a little bit salty, but is always very good,” and for goodness sake, “Let the wild rumpus start!” Then the old movies, even in (gasp!) black-and-white —like The Absent-Minded Professor that had them roaring with laughter and wholly engaged, or for the older one, the trilogy of cross-dressing in Some Like It HotTootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire.


Naturally, much art, much singing, some improvised music on piano/ Ghana xylophone/ rubber chickens and pigs. Helping out making waffles or roasting vegetables or grating cheese for burritos. And fun also means responsibility—the daily clean-up, consequences for the inevitable sibling bickering, owning up to mistakes made. Oh, and did I mention madcap wrestling and boxing and swordfights with cardboard tubes?


Adulthood is always so somber and serious after the unabashed laughter and tears of childhood, but never so much as today, with certifiably deluded people who will believe any conspiracy theory dominating the news, the near demise of democracy, the year anniversary of the pandemic and climate change with an alarming timetable. So maybe more important than ever to let the children be wholly children, not burden their fragile shoulders with too much weight, give them more ice cream than you think is good for their “character.” 


My theory, for the moment, of modern-day grandparenting. 

Jazz Stories: Summing Up

We got it so wrong with Black History Month, first, by making it a token “thing” rather than a radical re-writing of a subject called History. And secondly, by emphasizing this black person’s contribution and that black person’s contribution. Having being written out of the history books, it felt necessary to highlight the “Hidden Figures” to whom we owe so much. But beyond perhaps some black kids feeling a new sense of pride and a few white folks maybe thinking “Wow. I never knew that!”, what really changes? The answer, seems clear: Nothing. Or at best, not enough.


The issues lie so much deeper and require so much more. And perhaps the most important is for white folks to reflect on why history as taught in schools and discussed in our national discourse is the way it is. Learning a few things about the black contribution misses the mark in understanding what we really need to move forward. As Ijeomo Uluo said, “I don’t want you to understand me better— I want you to understand yourselves.”


And so at the end of these twelve Jazz Stories, a few thoughts:


• It isn’t enough to learn about the contributions from black people that are left out of the history books. But we do need to know them, we need to know who to thank and then we need to thank them. 


• It isn’t enough to be uplifted by the music/ poetry/ art/ dance/ theater that black artists created. But if we are, then we need to know their stories and the dues they paid to bring us such beauty, joy and pleasure. And on behalf of white folks everywhere, we again should thank them for their Herculean efforts to break through all the limitations we threw in their way and apologize for it all. 


• It isn’t enough to marvel at the extraordinary physical, moral and intellectual accomplishments of black athletes, artists, political activists, spiritual leaders. But while we should, we should see it all as a complete rebuttal to the illusion of White Supremacy and get to work improving our own intelligences inspired by their examples. 


• It isn’t enough to be inspired by the many ways presented in these Jazz Stories that one can begin to commit to needed change, sometimes through committed social action, sometimes by telling the needed stories through one’s art, sometimes simply by being one’s own beautiful and authentic self. But if we find ourselves inspired, then the best response is simply to get to work. 


• It isn’t enough feel shamed and guilty (though a little of both is always appropriate), but to understand that inventing, teaching, passing down and feeding the centuries-old narrative of White Supremacy has hurt us all. Black folks a thousand times more than whites, but white folks taught to hate, given permission to ignore unearned privilege, privileged to choose whether to think about these issues or not, excluded from the possibilities of friendships and working relationships with black folks because of blind belief in the doctrine, are also hurt by its perpetuation. 


• Seeing the consistency of the White Supremacist thread in each of these 12 stories, understanding more clearly how it works so that we can recognize it and refuse it drawing the line and proclaiming “This is where it stops.”— this gets closer to the heart of the matter. And it’s still not enough! Even those who have begun the work will always find themselves sliding back into the lies they were told at a child, will be blind to some of their unearned privileges, will find themselves resisting the next thing they have to consider. 


But of all these reasons for Black History Month, it’s the one that feels the most important. Recognizing how we’re all trapped in a narrative that purposefully damages and swings its heavy sword of power is perhaps the most important change-making step we can make. It’s the willfully blind or unconscious acceptance of this narrative that makes police with the knees on the neck, Capitol terrorists storming in with the Confederate flag, bystanders just going on with their day as if these things don’t concern them, feel justified and even righteous in the face of their odious actions and non-actions. It’s the story that is carried as a heavy shield against the duty of Christians to practice the Christianity they profess, Americans to be responsible citizens, people to be decent human beings. The story was invented to help slave-owners sleep peacefully at night on the soft pillow of their Southern “honor” and is still being used for the same. Without it, people would have to face themselves and get to work.


But wouldn’t we all be the happier for it? Shall we begin? 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Stagger on Rejoicing!

It’s March. Named for the Roman God of War. Cited in Shakespeare’s “Beware the ides of March.” The month that will come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. Or vice-versa. 


And now it is the month when one year ago, the world shut down. On March 1st last year, I was staying at an Air B ’n’ B in Marin County with my wife and two daughters celebrating her 70th birthday with a long bike ride and dinner out at a restaurant. Indoors!  A couple of days before, I played piano while my friend Laura sang at the Jewish Home for the Aged. Note: she SANG! We all did. Without a mask. 

The next day I went to the dentist and was asked my first question about exposure to the corona virus. And then went on to school, where I began teaching what was to be (unbeknownst to me) the last two weeks of my 45 years of live playing, singing and dancing. The next week, went on a retreat with my Men’s Group—9 of us in a house together. And at school, I went on a field trip to see a dance show where 3,000 kids were in the auditorium!


Extraordinary to think of it all now. School closed around March 13th (a Friday!), my grandkids came down to shelter with us for two weeks and still we were expecting that maybe everything would open up again by April 1st


And so here we are, my grandkids with us again (without their Mom and Dad for the first time), we celebrated my wife’s 71stbirthday with a lovely bike ride along the SF coastline and sushi dinner out on the street in the parklet with cars driving by. The world seems to be leaning toward a gradual re-opening, the crab apple tree in the Arboterum is beginning to blossom and Spring is in the air. Nothing to do but follow W.H.Auden’s advice:


“Stagger on rejoicing!”

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Jazz Stories XII: John Coltrane

 Very few people in this world make hotel reservations in the land of Grief. We’d much rather “have a nice day” and if there is an occasion where a tear drops from our eye, we often apologize to the people present, as if it were a cause for shame and we’re ruining their nice day. 


But if we make that a habit, what do we do when the occasion demands that we cry a river or are overwhelmed with a tidal wave of sorrow? An event like the Birmingham church bombing or 9/11 or the police murder of George Floyd?


We’ve seen how Nina Simone wrote and sang a song of outrage, how Charles Mingus wrote a composition of protest.  John Coltrane was not a singer, but he sure could sing through his tenor saxophone and reach some notes that his voice couldn’t easily reach. His reaction to the 1964 Birmingham act of terrorism was a great grief-cry, a composition called Alabama. 


Coltrane was that rare combination of disciplined technician— people say, only half-kidding, that he practiced 25 hours a day— and a soulful spokesperson for Divine Presence in the world. No one knows at the beginning of the path exactly what awaits them, but some simply feel called to follow it no matter where it may lead and to trust their heart to know when they’re on track or off. Coltrane went from the 3-minute jazz blues to the long composition A Love Supreme and people folded up in his volcanic sound were wholly along for the ride. 


And so when the community was in grief over Birmingham, some, like social activist Angela Davis, needed to hear the notes that spoke their sorrow and also led them towards hope. As all true artists do, he wasn’t aiming for a predictable effect, simply letting his own anguish cry forth and those that could hear, heard. As might you, when you listen. 


Listening: Alabama