Thursday, December 2, 2021

Soulful Imperfection

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.    

-      Leonard Cohen: Anthem


                                         … Wrens make their nest of fancy threads and string ends, animals

                                        abandon all their money each year. 

                                       What is it that men and women leave?

                                       Harder than wren’s doing, they have to 

                                     abandon their longing for the perfect…


-      Robert Bly: Listening to the Kohn Concert


Everything I value about my work as an educator came from this simple fact:


I was a kid who hated school and became a teacher. 


Meaning I was determined to find a better way to do this. Recognizing that children gathering each day for 12 to 15 years is an extraordinary opportunity,  I took seriously the thought that there’s not a minute to waste. Any moment in a class that is not playful, not deadly serious, not an opportunity to discover something worthy about the world, about ourselves and about each other, is squandering the beautiful possibilities life and learning offer us. 


I walked with a wise and seasoned teacher colleague the other day and she was lamenting that the teachers she was mentoring in a program had to spend so much time filling out forms— and so did she. Those lists made up by people in offices who haven’t sat on the floor with actual children in circle time for a long time— and some perhaps never— that are the adult fantasy of the perfect lesson, with all the checkpoints of clearly stated objectives, social-emotional bullet points, differentiated education strategies, culturally responsive curriculums, as if teaching were a shopping list and mentoring a judgement of whether the teacher fulfilled the perfect lesson. The whole glory of awakening young souls to beauty and wonder and possibility, the whole messy and artful craft of inviting delicate whispers and exuberant shouts into the venture, the deep necessity of a mentor watching the teacher and their posture and gesture and voice and attention and connection and exuberance and passion and love, the need for the teacher to watch for the same in the student, is now reduced to ticking off pre-packaged standards that can be discussed in a bland voice. Like people walking through an exquisite and elaborate forest with their heads buried in their phones, teachers are missing what’s important and administrators are now hell-bent on requiring them to do so. 


I would like to give a lecture someday (to adults only) on education as lovemaking, but in today’s climate, would probably get arrested. Of course, it’s an inappropriate metaphor taken literally and especially when talking about children (though Eros himself, the god of the erotic, was depicted as a chubby little child). But the principles of good lovemaking apply equally to cooking, jazz improvisation and teaching. Think how discouraging, debilitating, discouraging and deflating (perhaps literally!) it would be to have a standard of perfect lovemaking with a list to check off, each objective clearly stated before proceeding, everything timed according to a precise schedule and then graded at the end. With the grades publicly posted. 


Instead, good lovemaking (and cooking and jazz) is a dance, a conversation, an improvisation, a sensitively attuned call and response, a playful exploration and experimentation. No two are alike. And it is at its best when love enters the picture. The ancient Greek’s first concept of Eros was as a fundamental agent in the formation of the world, using the uniting power of love, to bring order and harmony among the conflicting elements of Chaos. That’s not a bad Mission Statement for education. 


Instead we have the fantasy of The Perfect Lesson and the wasting of teacher’s and student’s precious time trying to enforce its implementation. It’s leaking in everywhere, even into the so-called “enlightened circles” of progressive education. Stay tuned for Part II— how to recognize it and why it’s harmful. Then Part III— some concrete examples of the power of the imperfect lesson, the one that’s vulnerable enough to let the light through the crack, the one that gathers strings and threads and forms a beautiful nest through some mysterious intuitive instinct to house the eggs of the life to come.


Literary Game Show: Answers

I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for the answers to the game from November 29. To save you the trouble of scrolling back, I repeat the parody title below next to the real one and the author. Not to shame you, but I need to boast that I scored 26 out of 26 with guessing the correct title, got 24 out of 26 authors correct (didn’t know that Gaston Leroux wrote the original Phantom of the Opera and Pierre Boulle wrote the original Planet of the Apes)and have read 21 out of the 26. Go me!


1.    Brave New Squirrel— Brave New World: Aldous Huxley

2.    A Tale of Two Kitties— A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens

3.    The Old Pan and the Pea— The Old Man and the Sea: Ernest Hemingway

4.    For Whom the Highway Tolls— For Whom the Bell Tolls: Hemingway

5.    The Great Catsby—The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald

6.    The Emperor’s New Nose— The Emperor’s New Clothes: Fairy Tale

7.    Doctor Chicago— Doctor Zhivago: Boris Pasternak

8.    Planet of the Grapes— Planet of the Apes: Pierre Boulle

9.    Boar and Peas— War and Peace: Leo Tolstoy

10. Breakfast Epiphanies— Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Truman Capote

11. 20,000 Channels on TV—20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Jules Verne

12. Henry Snotter—Harry Potter: JK Rowling

13. The Snatcher of the Pie—The Catcher in the Rye: JS Salinger

14. Olive or Twist—Oliver Twist: Charles Dickens

15. The Cranberry Tale— The Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer

16. The Phantom of the Opossum—The Phantom of the Opera: Gaston Leroux

17. The Adventures of Strawberry Finn— Huckleberry Finn: Mark Twain

18. Jane Gas— Jane Eyre: Jane Austen

19. The Woman in Pink— The Woman in White: Wilkie Coilins

20. The Legend of Marshmallow—The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Washington Irving

21. Gong with the Wind—Gone with the Wind: Margaret Mitchell

22. The Bark of the Wild—The Call of the Wild: Jack London

23. The Scarlett Sweater— The Scarlet Letter: Nathaniel Hawthorne

24. The Importance of Being Regular— The Importance of Being Earnest: Oscar WIlde

25. The Man in the Iron Free Shirt— The Man in the Iron Mask: Alexander Dumas

26. Moby Richard— Moby Dick: Herman Melville


Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Blank in the Parenthesis


Started December browsing through a book — “A Poem a Day,” a collection of poetry put together by Laurie Sheck. Much better choice than a newspaper. I stumble on some choice poems and then notice that some of the poets have dates like this: 


• Wislawa Szymborska (1923-   )

• Maxine Kumin (1925-    )

• Robert Creeley (1926 -  )

• Galway Kinnell (1927-  )

• Phillip Levine (1928 -   )

• Mark Strand (1934  -   )

• Mary Oliver (1935 -   )


All those beautiful blank spaces on the other side of the hyphen. The comfort of knowing that the day may bring to light another poem from one of these people sent to earth to notice, to praise, to share the pain, wonder and beauty through the human gift of language. 


But this anthology was published in 2003 and now, each of the above has filled in the blank with a year that says: “No new words will be thrown into the pond of public discourse from this person, just the rings they made with their splash that still reach the shore of someone in need of reading them.” We were blessed to have them with us, most of them sticking around into their 80’s and 90’s and some still with us — David Wagoner (1926 -    ), Gary Snyder: (1930 -     ), Mark Strand (1934 -  ). 


And you reading this and me reading this have the great good fortune of that blank space after the hypen, the one that invites us to fill it with the full measure of our life energy before a number steps in. The month has turned, the world still spins, the days grow short and love still blossoms in impossible places. Let us be worthy of that empty space.


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

November 30

On November 30, 1487, the Germany Purity Law decreed that beer be made with only three ingredients—water, malt and hops. In 1523 on this day, Amsterdam banned an assembly of heretics, who then regrouped in a local pub to drink some pure beer and discuss freedom of speech. In 1753, a group of Stonemasons met to hold secret rituals involving mutual help, fellowship and beer, but on this day Holland made it all illegal. 


Over to hundred years later, Alfred “Freddy” Heineken, grandson of the founder of the Heineken brewery and the marketing and deal-making genius who had turned the company’s beer into a global brand, left his office in central Amsterdam on a cold evening in November 1983. He expected to be greeted by his long-serving chauffeur, but instead he was confronted by men carrying guns, who, after a brief scuffle, bundled him and his driver into a delivery van. Five men had been planning the kidnapping for months. They had been involved in low-level shady dealings and developed a passion for luxury cars, race horses and partying. They settled in on the beer billionaire and in a plot involving six stolen cars, pistols and Uzi’s and a trail of red herrings meant to mislead the detectives. 

 Heineken and his chauffeur, Ab Doderer were rushed to a West Amsterdam warehouse where a false wall had been built to contain two soundproofed cells. The kidnapping was meant to last only 48 hours, but it eventually stretched over 21 days.  

The driver and the billionaire were stripped of their clothes and belongings and chained inside the tiny rooms, isolated from the outside world and each other. Heineken later said he’d feared that he’d been kidnapped by West Germany’s notorious Red Army Faction and worried that the cell’s air pipe would fail. His kidnappers celebrated and then returned to their normal routines in order to avoid raising the suspicion of friends, family or police before making their ransom demand.   

Heineken, who ruled his company with an iron will, did not appear bowed by the kidnapping, even as his detention stretched from days into weeks. Van Hout, the gang’s leader, recounted that the kidnappers were impressed by Heineken’s grit and humor. “He really had a strong character, this man. He was almost a kind of psychologist.” 

The then 60-year-old butted heads with the gang over food and conditions. The kidnappers were confused by his demands for consomm√© and other delicacies, and he tried to bribe one of the captors into releasing him. Heineken, shackled to a wall of the cold, dank cell, later painted a bleak picture of the conditions: “I always kept one slice of bread to eat at night or the following morning, because you’re never sure that there will be bread the next morning.”  Heineken and Doderer were forced to pose for several proof-of-life photographs during their captivity but never saw the faces of theirs captors and were forced to communicate only via notes. 

The kidnappers had put exacting attention into their plan to communicate the ransom demand and exchange via coded messages and cutouts to baffle detectives. The gang made contact by dropping an envelope with Heineken’s watch, Doderer’s papers and a ransom note to a small police station. Police were ordered to signal that the ransom of $11 million was ready with an advertisement in the personal section of a Dutch newspaper reading: “The meadow is green for the Hare.” 

The gang had closely studied famous kidnappings, like those of Getty and Lindbergh, and they had an equally elaborate plan for the handover of the ransom. A recorded message from Heineken and Doderer played back over a call from a payphone would direct police to the first of a series of buried messages that would lead detectives on a trail across the small country. The penultimate step was a car with a walkie-talkie that would be used to radio instructions to stop on a highway bridge and drop the ransom into a storm drain. 

The plan was almost perfect. But it was foiled by events outside the control of the gang or the police. The kidnappers demanded that an unarmed police officer carry the ransom in a marked van from Heineken’s home in Noordwijk, but the scrum of reporters surrounding the property made this impossible.

Days of silence followed before the gang and negotiators re-established contact through coded newspaper advertisements. In the meantime, police acting on an anonymous tip had put the gang under surveillance and tracked the crew, eventually zeroing in on the warehouse after watching the kidnappers order Chinese takeout for two.

Plans for a second ransom exchange went ahead as concerns about the safety of the hostages grew. The police planned to track the loot with a night vision camera on a helicopter but this was foiled by a technical hitch. 

With helicopters buzzing overhead, the gang signaled on walkie-talkie to the Mouse—the police driver carrying the ransom—to stop on a highway overpass and drop the money into the storm drain marked with a traffic cone. Exactly according to plan, the five mailbags then slid through the drain and landed below in the flatbed of a waiting pickup truck, and the crew escaped unobserved. 

The crew drove to a wooded area southeast of Amsterdam where they hid the ransom in barrels that were buried. In a characteristically Dutch twist, they made their getaway on bicycles. 

The day after the ransom exchange, the gang spotted that they were under police surveillance and arranged a meeting to discuss their plans. They were divided on whether to flee the Netherlands or stay. Meijer decided to stay put, and van Hout and and Holleeder opted to flee to Paris. Van Hout and Holleeder would remain on the run, or in legal limbo in France and the French Caribbean, until they were extradited and finally convicted of the kidnapping in 1987. 

Dutch police, with the ransom paid and no word from the kidnapper, raided the warehouse and were initially confused by the false wall before discovering the concealed cells. “Could you not have come a bit earlier?” Heineken asked his rescuers. The date of his release? November 30th

Now November 30th is also the birthday of Jonathan Swift, who prophecised the events centuries earlier, depicting  Heineken as a Giant Gulliver tied down by a gang of Lilliputians, but eventually escaping. It’s also the birthday of Mark Twain, who described the kidnappers failed attempt to escape on a raft and Brownie McGhee, who sang Which Side Are You On, Born for Bad Luck, Key to My Door and other blues describing the events. Two other Nov. 30th birthday folks chimed in— Abbie Hoffman distracted the police with some Civil Disobedience and Shirley Chisholm critiqued the FBI for refusing to go after white collar criminals. Michael Jackson provided the soundtrack for the escape when he released Thriller on that day, Ben Kingsley reminded the world that such behavior was not  the change we wanted to be in the world with the release of the film  Gandhi. James Baldwin was working on his book “If Amsterdam Freemasons Could Talk” when he died on that day, as did Tiny Tim, tiptoeing through the tulips (in Holland) for the last time. 

And now the thrilling climax: When captured and asked why they targeted, Heineken, the kidnappers replied: “It’s simple. He broke the sacred law of 1487 by using more than three ingredients in his Heineken beer. We rest our case.”

Literary Game Show

Ready for some high-brow entertainment? I’m about halfway through a jigsaw puzzle of people (and note the inclusive images of “people”) reading books. If you look closer, you see the titles are parodies. So how many of the original titles can you recognize? And how many have you actually read? (Extra credit if you can name the author.)

 To warm you up, what is the original of “Moby Richard”? Take a moment… you got it!

“Moby Dick.” By Herman Melville. 


So below are 25 titles. Write the correct title next to it, the author and check it if you’ve read it.  Good luck and have fun!


1.    Brave New Squirrel

2.    A Tale of Two Kitties

3.    The Old Pan and the Pea

4.    For Whom the Highway Tolls

5.    The Great Catsby

6.    The Emperor’s New Nose

7.    Doctor Chicago

8.    Planet of the Grapes

9.    Boar and Peas.

10.Breakfast Epiphanies

11.20,000 Channels on TV

12.Henry Snotter

13.The Snatcher of the Pie

14.Olive or Twist

15.The Cranberry Tale

16.The Phantom of the Opposum

17.The Adventures of Strawberry Finn

18.Jane Gas

19.The Woman in Pink

20.The Legend of Marshmallow

21.Gong with the Wind

22.The Bark of the Wild

23.The Scarlett Sweater

24.The Importance of Being Regular

25.The Man in the Iron Free Shirt


(Answers tomorrow.)

Monday, November 29, 2021

How's Retirement?

In the past few days, I’ve met three different alum parents out in the world. At the beginning of the month, I reunited with various music teachers at the Orff National Conference. A few weeks ago, I went back to my school to help out with a project to better organize the alum data base. 


At these and other occasions, the inevitable question comes up: 


“How’s retirement?”


And finally I have a pithy answer that summarizes it all:


“Great! I love my boss and I love my schedule.”



Sunday, November 28, 2021

Me and Robert Bly

Today I found out that the poet Robert Bly passed away last week, one month short of his 95thbirthday. It was comforting to hear he was surrounded by loving family members and that on his last day on earth, Chopin was playing in the house. Here’s a short tribute I offered on Facebook: 


R.I.P. Robert Bly. Thanks to you, this group has met twice monthly for 31 years trying to help each other figure out how to be human beings in men's bodies. Accompanied by your stellar collection of poetry in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Blessings to you for your courage and determination to bring poetry into the heart—or at least the fingertips— of a culture sorely in need of the news it brings. We are blessed to have had you for almost 95 years. May you rest in peace.


I’ve mentioned this Men’s Group before, but haven’t told the story of its conception, a gift Robert Bly gave to us without ever knowing it. (Now I regret not sending him a photo and thanks before he passed away.) Starting around 1989, I attended many one day workshops and/or evening talks with Robert Bly along with Michael Meade, James Hillman, sometimes Malidoma Some and others. They were gatherings of men trying to discover a positive, non-toxic masculinity that also wasn’t simply embracing feminism (as important as that was). Through myths, fairy tales, poetry, talks and small group discussions, with occasional songs, it was the kind of school worthy of our time— combining intellect, imagination, intuition, heart in a seamless web of search and reflection to consider what has held men back from each other and from a masculine authority that is genuine and inclusive and loving and different from merely copying feminine styles. Each has their dignity, their truth, their beauty, their character, but are not easily transferable between our biologically distinct bodies, brain structure, survival strategies and cultural trainings. While honoring and respecting the Great Mother and her children, it was time in America to see if there was a choice beyond toxic brutality and shame-filled denial of our gender. And I believe it helped and we owe Robert Bly a great debt for that. 


And so when our “founding member” went on a week-long retreat with Robert Bly and his fellow teachers, he came back determined to keep the energy going and invited 9 men he already knew to begin meeting. And so we began, in January of 1990, meeting for a couple of hours at rotating houses once every two weeks. We were— and are— a leaderless group, but the host can name a topic and we ritually include check-ins about our lives. The important epiphanies of those first meetings was simply discovering that we were not alone, that we all felt isolated from other men, had had struggles with our emotionally absent fathers, depended on women to cultivate our own emotional life. One man dropped out after the first year, another after five years and one committed suicide in his 11thyear with us. Two “new” men joined in 2003 and here we all still are all these years later, “persistently keeping our small boats afloat” and sharing the stories of our days at sea with others.


So a final thanks to Robert Bly for his extraordinary legacy— his poems, translations, talks, insights born from Jung, mythology and fairy tales, courageous anti-war work and initiating and sustaining work in the “men’s movement.” He kept his large boat afloat for almost 95 years and the world is richer for it. Below is a poem of his and treat yourself to the Youtube video of him reading it. 


Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat

                     Robert Bly

So many blessings have been given to us
During the first distribution of light, that we are
Admired in a thousand galaxies for our grief.

Don’t expect us to appreciate creation or to
Avoid mistakes. Each of us is a latecomer
To the earth, picking up wood for the fire.

Every night another beam of light slips out
From the oyster’s closed eye. So don’t give up hope
that the door of mercy may still be open.

Seth and Shem, tell me, are you still grieving
Over the spark of light that descended with no
Defender near into the Egypt of Mary’s womb?

It’s hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.

Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm.