Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Art of Blessing

After five weeks away, I’m back helping out teaching music to kids at Children Day’s School. At lunchtime, a 7th grader who I did a few classes with back in October came up to me. “Remember you said I had potential?” he said with a smile. I answered, “You’re Levi, yes? Absolutely! Are you doing anything with it!” All his friends around him chimed in “No!”, as 7th grade friends would. “Well, don’t wait too long!”


This was the boy who in the very first class I taught was singing too loud and kind of fooling around, but when I invited them to dance, had some great moves. I stopped the class and said, “Wow! I didn’t get to watch everyone, but there was one of you in particular who really impressed me with his style and energy.” In the silly way I do, I dramatically went around the circle and then stopped in front of this boy Levi. “Can everyone copy his motion”?


At the end of class, I called him aside and asked if he was studying any music and dance outside of class. He said no and I told him, “Well consider it. You have great potential.”


And he remembered that. Six months later. I imagine many adults— and peers— are often yelling at him to stop doing this and stop doing that, but here I was telling him that this energy was not bad, just needed to be funneled into artful expression. It obviously made an impression. Not that he’s suddenly taking hip-hop dance classes or taking up an instrument, but that an adult blessed him with the thought that he might be better than he thought he was. 


Don’t we all need that? Don’t we remember the adults— a special teacher or aunt or uncle or sometimes even a stranger at a bus stop— who said something that made us feel seen or known, even beyond what we could see or know in ourselves? Dear reader, take a moment to think of the people in your life who gave you that gift and take a moment to thank them. Maybe even call them or write them a note if they’re still on the planet. 


This kind of praise and blessing is as essential to us as bread and water. It doesn’t come from Facebook telling us “we value your memories” or the guy on stage yelling “I love you all!” or the fake scripted “I like the way you put your pencil away without breaking it.” It doesn’t come from a quota system where you make sure each person in the circle is praised exactly the same amount for the same amount of time, worried that someone might feel left out.  It certainly doesn’t come from multiple-choice pre-written computer comments on the report card. 


To praise authentically, you first have to be aware of what is praiseworthy. Little artistic breakthroughs, acts of kindness, efforts above and beyond the call of duty. You have to constantly watch the children, alert to the moment when the right word is needed and take the time to give it. It can—and should— come side-by-side with a challenge. “I see this in you. This is what you need to do to have it fully blossom. Are you up to it? If you make the commitment, I’ll help you and when you go beyond where I can go, I’ll help you find the next helper.” Sometimes it’s just hanging out together and sharing enthusiasms— books you love for the aspiring writer, music you love for the up and coming musician and so on.


Most likely, it comes from people who themselves have been blessed and thus, have a model of how that can change people’s lives. Which means that if you start to practice the art of blessing, you send forth ripples in the pond that will continue to echo into the future and affect people who you will never meet, blessed by the person you blessed. 


It’s also possible that you learned the absolute need for such praise by the absence of it in your life and your determination to stop the chain of refusing to see, value or know others and tell them about it. A teacher I know who gave the gifts of blessing to her students for over 35 years was recently celebrated at a retirement party. Her mother attended and witnessed all the love and appreciation this teacher inspired. When she asked her Mom at the end, “Well, what did you think?” the response was, “Well, the snacks were good.” 


As she told me this story, I could feel the pain in her voice. Over 70 years old, she was still hoping for her mother’s blessing and more than a little bit heartbroken that it was not there. It should have been. It should have been. And perhaps never was for her mother, so the neglect kept moving down the generations. Until the teacher put up a Stop sign and turned it around for her own daughter and her own students. It’s possible.


Having thought of who blessed you in your life, think of who you blessed in the next generation. And keep going. It’s never too late. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022


According to the test, I don’t have Covid — and thank goodness for that. However, I do have a good old-fashioned cold, certainly courtesy of 12-hours in an enclosed tube with a couple of hundred people, all masked, but many of them coughing. Combined with no sleep and an immune system that begged me to stop. 


As confessed recently, my sense of resilience, my capacity for patience, my ability to accept what the world offers, seems to have diminished as I age. And related to that is my whiny, whimpy self that hates being sick. Well, that’s always been true, but since I’ve gotten exactly one cold in over two years and that for only two days, I’m not used to this feeling.


“Compare and despair” is sometimes wise counsel, but I can’t help think about some extraordinary artists I admire who struggled with health their whole life. I’m thinking of the artist Frida Kahlo, bedridden as a child from polio and then again in a later bus accident. Painter Touluse-Lautrec and jazz pianist Michel Petrucianni, both whom suffered from a rare bone disease in which their bones kept breaking and neither grew taller than five feet. Classical composer and pianist Frederic Chopin who died at 39 and suffered ill health his whole life while composing some of the most exquisite piano music ever penned. The poet Rainier Marie Rilke who suffered from leukemia and spent much time in sanatoriums. Jazz drummer Chick Webb who had leukemia of the spine. It’s quite a list.


If you—like me— think that you have to feel well, be in tip-top health, balance your biorhythms and meticulously oversee your diet in order to accomplish something worthwhile, think again. That Chopin can compose Berceuse,  a piece that inspires, uplifts and reveals heartbreaking beauty, while feeling like crap is a lesson for us all.


So instead of lying around in bed, I’m going to the piano. Don’t expect a masterpiece— or even a minipiece— but I’m going to test out my theory. Spirit can triumph over body.


Wish me luck! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022


Resilience. Whether it’s aging, the pandemic or the constant assault of the news, I notice I’m not as resilient as I’d like to be these days. Doesn’t take much to set me off— machines that don’t work, Swiss banks that won’t change money, overpriced train tickets that no one ever collects, lines that move too slowly. I feel the blood pressure rising and impatience taking charge. I used to think of myself as Mr. Mellow, unflustered by traffic jams or sticky computer keys or plans that go awry. 


But not anymore. Does aging suggest that the hourglass of time is hyper-aware that not a second should be wasted on these petty little annoyances? 


And so I ask myself: “Why do I grant them so much power to upset me? Is happiness only a perfect-temperature-bike-ride through Elysian fields with gelato at the end? Might I dig a little deeper to some surer serenity not at the mercy of the whims of fate and fortune? Can I grow a skin thick enough to make the darts of annoyance glance off?” One would hope so.


And one would be wrong. No sooner had I pledged myself to resilience than I had to wait in an unnecessary line at the Barcelona Airport to just “double-check” our boarding card, a line with one agent that moved at the pace that would make snails honk their horns. Each person who made it to the front seemed to be discussing the question of whether God exists and considering all the different points of view. After 30-40 minutes of this maddening waiting in line, finally made it to the front and on to the plane for the 12-hour journey, fully expecting another such line at American customs.


And then, a gift from the gods! Zipped through customs in 5 minutes without even stopping to talk to an agent! Joy of joys! And then penalized by 55 minutes where the baggage belt didn’t budge and nobody knew why. A good time to practice patience and resilience, but I was failing miserably.


And so today, back home catching up on errands, I went to deposit a check in the ATM. But the ATM declined. My bank has been closed for 6 months but now was open and my excitement about dealing with human beings was alive and well as I entered the bank. Two tellers, two people in line ahead of me. 


Yet once again, the conversation of each customer with the bank tellers either seemed to be continuing a debate on the fine points of whether a Supreme Being exists or reviewing the book they recently read— War and Peace for one, Les Miserables for the other. What I thought would be a two-minute transaction was now stretching to 20 or 30. 


Breathe in. Breathe out. I tried it for a couple of minutes and yes, it helped a little. Instead of wishing for the perfect plan seamlessly executed, the practice of accepting what the world gives you—like waking up with a tickle in my throat at 2:30 am in the jet-lagged morning and never quite being able to go back to sleep— is probably the greatest power a human being can cultivate. 

But it takes a lot of work. And frankly, I don’t have the time or patience! 



Monday, May 16, 2022

All Good


“California, here we come, right back where we started from…”


Woke up in Zurich, 20-minute train to the airport, 3-hour wait to fly to Barcelona, 3-hour layover there before boarding the 12-hour 4-movie flight to San Francisco. A remarkable 5-minute zip through Customs followed by a maddening 55 minutes before the baggage belt moved. Some 20 straight hours of travel, about one of which was spent sleeping, before the welcome return to my home and city. Might I be getting a bit too old for this?


Nevertheless, as enchanted to be back amongst the century-old wooden homes as I was by the centuries-old stone ones, as happy to see Montery pines and cypruses as I was to see Italian varieties, as delighted by the Thai take-out our daughter Talia brought to us as the next fresh pasta and caprese salad. “Right back where we started from,” at once so easily familiar, as if we never left, and seen with some fresh appreciation, moving from the delights of travel to the delights of the settled life. It’s all good.


Finally horizontal at 9:30 pm SF time and now awake at 5:00 am SF time. Back in my morning sweatpants and happy to reunite with my meditation cushions. A morning shopping, haircut, unpacking, laundry and perhaps a bike ride await, ready to begin the next chapter in this perpetually new and renewed life. 



Sunday, May 15, 2022

Parting Glances

A minor miracle— we made it through the 12 Gates of the City to actually get our boarding passes in hand. So much anguish filling out one form after another before setting foot in the airport , many of which no one ever asked to see. Even now in the airport, the free Wi-fi demands a phone number that it refuses to recognize. 

When it works, our electronic fantasies of efficiency can be helpful, but in the end, it probably is more inefficient than the human beings who used to do some of these jobs. And minus the potential pleasure of human interaction. Arriving at our last hotel in Walhalla, there was an open door you could walk through without a code! A reception desk! A smiling person behind the reception desk who gave us a key! Someone I could not only ask about nearby restaurants, but someone who gave me a 15% discount card for the one around the corner. Sheer joy!!!


So now at the Barcelona Airport with a two-hour layover and a good time to say some final goodbyes to Switzerland and more distant arriverdercis to Italy. Hard to believe that amidst digging for all my associations with Switzerland, I forgot the most obvious— Swiss cheese! Also muesli and more obscure, Swiss Kriss, Louis Armstrong’s favorite laxative. A few parting observations:


• Cranes: The national building seems to be enormous yellow cranes. Every single small town had them, some as many as 10 or 12. Eventually, we just accepted them as part of the landscape.


• Unmasked: The whole country is. On the street, in the stores, on the trains, in the airport and most happy for me, in the music workshops. I was content to teach live human beings in Italy with masks, but teaching without in Switzerland was the next level of return to a normalcy worth celebrating. Let’s hope Covid agrees.


• Smoking: Lots of it! While I often leave Europe feeling that the U.S. has so much to learn to reach a higher level of culture, sociability, care for its citizens, aesthetics and so on, Switzerland could follow California’s lead and stop smoking so much! 


• Men’s Groups: Not the artificial kind where we set a schedule to discuss our feelings, but endless groups of men hanging out at restaurants, on park benches, at the outdoor cafĂ©. Same as in Italy. Haven’t seen similar public gatherings of women, but perhaps they gather at each other’s homes, relieved that the men aren’t around. Or doing the household chores and child-raising the men are neglecting. In my little world of Orff Schulwerk, be it in South America, Europe or Asia, the women are all the organizers and they are all quite comfortable and supremely competent being in charge of these organizations. 


And so on. Now’s a good time to give a shout-out to my faithful luggage, the purple suitcase I lived out of for four weeks, my trusty backpack that carried what I needed when I needed it. My appreciation for all the small things that are gold to the traveler— the safety pin that held my sunglasses together, the occasional plastic bags that we needed for the food we bought at markets, the clothespins that kept things from spilling out, the laundry soap we brought, the scrap paper to mark the Rummy 500 scores. Apologies to my biking shorts, bathing suit, camping towel and blue shirt for lugging them all around and virtually never using them. They got their revenge by punishing me with extra unneeded weight. 


But all in all, I packed well and though I look forward to wearing the shirts awaiting me in the closet back home and to returning the suitcase to the basement and opening drawers, there is a certain pride and pleasure in doing with less and carrying most of what you need around with you (with the help of wheels on suitcases and waiting beds in hotels). 


One final thanks to all our hosts, from the bike tour operators to the Orff friends, to the hotel managers, restaurant workers, bus and train drivers, IT workers that helped us keep in touch via e-mail/ What’s Ap/ Facebook/ blogs. Auf wiedersehen, arrividerci and goodbye to it all— for now. I look forward to return visits!


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Some Thoughts on Treason While Waiting for the Results of My Covid Test

While waiting for the results of my Covid test in the Swiss village of Dagmesellen, I happened to look at the inside of my passport, where there is this inspiring quote:


“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


Union. Justice. Tranquility. Welfare. Liberty. Each and every one of which the Repugnitan Party is actively trying to shut down. Why are they not being tried for treason?


Take Union. President Obama began his first term reaching across the table to work together and the unspoken (and spoken) answer was “Not on your life. We will do everything in our power to work against you, discredit you, spread lies about you and vote against everything you propose.” This was a conscious, active decision, a premeditated policy that started in the mid-90’s with Newt Gingrich’s purposively divisive politics that had nothing to do with the common good of “we the people”—all the people of the United States. The new party line was “We the people who look like us and think like us and are white, male, rich ‘Christians.’ ” ("Christians" in quotes because anyone who has seriously studied Jesus knows he would not approve.)

And on it has continued, culminating in a President who narrowed the “we” down further to anyone who agreed with him, no matter what garbage spewed from his mouth insulting Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled, the Democrats, the journalists and more. Their rallying cry is to sow the seeds of division at all costs, a cry amplified by Fox News and beyond. They’re at it again with Biden. No allegiance to the President and the Constitution they swore to uphold. Treason.


Then Justice. Have you noticed all the shenanigans to stop citizens from voting? Ongoing, relentless and shameless. The long support of absolving police from murdering black people, the thinking nothing of locking immigrant kids in cages and now taking away the right of women to control their bodies. Criminals like the last President and so many of his cronies still walking around free while these traitors keep doing everything they can to build the wall that keeps the moral arc from coming closer to Justice. 


Domestic Tranquility? Dream on. Every action, every word on Fox news, designed to foment division, to stir up hatred, to sow the seeds of discord. 


The common defence? (Interesting ,the only word not capitalized). Let’s imagine that the treason stops short of not supporting the military. I don’t enough of the details to comment.

We’ll give them one point.


But when it comes to Welfare, meaning the well-being of our citizens, every action is about privatizing services like health care and mental health care and education in favor of those who inherited the money through the privilege of race and gender and the hell with the rest. Go back through the policies of every government since Reagan and you’ll see that any bill designed to promote the general welfare came from Democrats, often vehemently opposed by Republicans. 


Which brings us to Liberty, not only for our current citizens, but with forethought for Posterity and the lives of our descendants. All they do is block, block, block any steps towards a genuine progress that shows care, support, equality. They denied the election, denied Covid, denied climate change and now are hard at work denying children the right to know their history, denying women the right to control their bodies when impregnated by men who have no accountability, denying voters the right to vote simply and freely and when their plan to make certain of them with darker skin stand in line for ten hours comes to fruition, then criminalizing anyone who brings them a drink of water. The depth of the shamelessness, the height of the treason, is simply extraordinary. And yet here they are, not only walking around free, but somehow with the power to keep shutting down democracy as envisioned in the Constitution. 


Can we require Congress to recite the above Preamble each and every day and re-affirm their allegiance and hold them accountable when they don’t? If so, when? If not, why not?

P.S. I tested negative so I can get on my flight home. Can I please come back to a country where Democracy still exists?


Friday, May 13, 2022

Winding Up

Bike ride we did, on our next-to-last day here in the small village of Dagmersellen. Borrowed our host Melanie’s electric bicycles and set off on the river path, riding in the rain. Something we managed to avoid in all those other days of biking. It was a mild rain and stopped after 20 minutes or so and wasn’t it lovely to be back on a bike in the countryside, alongside a river and fields and distant mountains. Arrived in the town of Zofingel and walked the bikes through the charming Old Town, stopping for coffee and carrot cake. 


Earlier, I asked Melanie to remind me how she fell into Orff Schulwerk. She told me she took the three-year Music and Movement program run by my other host in Basel at the University and for a project, had to pick a book from their library to read and summarize. Her choice? My book Now’s the Time: Teaching Jazz to All Ages! She noticed my Website in the back and as she put it, was surprised that I was still alive! So she wrote to me with a question and I answered her and in the exchanges, mentioned the Orff Intern program I had started at The San Francisco School. Lo and behold, she applied, was accepted, joined us in 2014 and then continued the next three summers with our Orff Levels program in the Carmel Valley. In the years that followed, she married a farmer, had two lovely children and continued to teach music. Her sister, cousin and mother-in-law all came to the workshop here that I taught!


In the morning before the bike ride, I accompanied her to a class she was teaching for older people —ie, my age!— in one of the most beautiful music rooms I’ve ever seen, complete with wood floor, grand piano and a stunning view out the window. It was a lovely class and a privilege for me to be her student. Just one of dozens of stories about the way  lives can intertwine, especially if you’re a teacher. 


Between the class and the bike ride, Karen and I set out to change money and for all my praise of Switzerland, this is something they could work on. It was a simple request at three different banks to just hand them some Euros and ask for Swiss francs in return, but none of them would do it. We haven’t seen any money-changers in any place we’ve been, various places have rejected our credit cards and the ATM’s don’t accept our debit cards. Again, Melanie came to the rescue, but come on, Switzerland, it’s to your advantage to make it easy to accept our money!


We ended the day with Melanie’s family at the farm and had a great conversation with her farmer husband, who after a long day of work in the fields, came back fresh and energetic and playing with the kids and telling us about farming with great gusto and enthusiasm. It’s not a life that looks easy to me, but it clearly fit his character and of course, I have to thank him and his fellow farmers for getting food and milk on the table. 


Today is a morning Covid test, a train ride to Zurich and one last stroll around a city before the long plane ride home. A sunny day with perfect temperature and hopes that all connections get made.