Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dream On

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of” said the immortal Bard and he was on to something here. “All things are created thrice” said the mortal Doug in an article he once wrote and Shakespeare hit step one— dream ahead of time what might happen. Project yourself into the future and live it in your imagination. It can be as simple as opening the refrigerator and imagining the meal you’re going to cook tonight or more long range, like the November concert I planned for my kids while riding on a bus in Ecuador in July, or further ahead yet, as in the proverbial “What do I want to be when I grow up?”  (I’m still working on that one.)

Once you have the picture of what you’d like to happen, the Executive function kicks into high gear, starts to put the feet on the wings of the dream. The meal planner makes a list of missing ingredients and figures out when to shop, the music teacher writes out the music and plans the rehearsals, the dreamy child goes to the library to get out books about firefighters. While breathing in and out in the moment, one foot is already in the Future and aimed to walk in a specific direction. (In that Ecuador bus ride, the dream was so strong that as I was picturing it in my mind and hearing in my head, I was so moved by the final notes of the last song that I started to cry. And when the concert happened, that ending was exactly as I pictured it. That’s how powerful the imagination can be.)

Then when the present moment comes—the meal, the concert, the first day on the job of a lifelong career— it’s time to be in the present and give yourself fully to the activity, enjoy the fruits of a short or long labor. It’s time to be wholly present in the Present.

But it’s not over yet. After the meal, concert or career, the Executive function is still awake analyzing what might be better next time. ("Next time, I'll try arugula instead of spinach." "Gotta get that guiro away from the microphone!" "Dang! Got to the top of the corporate ladder, but it was against the wrong wall!") This might be the time to look back at the photos or listen to the recording or discuss how things went with the people who were there. And the dreamer is still awake as well, feeling the echo of the emotions and storing away the pleasures for a future dark time or winter’s night when the mind turns back to the Past for comfort and solace.

All things are created thrice—imagined in the Future, lived in the Present, remembered in the Past. This gives a texture and depth to our life that the mere Present cannot hold. I once read of someone working with troubled teens in prison. When she asked them what they imagined themselves doing when they got out of prison, she was met with blank stares. She discovered that they simply were incapable of imagining their own future and had no inner resources beyond their immediate reaction in the present. And that’s what got them into trouble. What was missing from their lives?

In a word, stories. These were kids who were never told stories as kids and rarely read stories. Stories are the jungle gym of the imagination, not only giving us images to turn over in our minds through the fireworks of language, but inviting us to enter the story and imagine ourself in the characters. Stories are also “storehouses” of situations, challenges, dilemmas, with their multiple pathways of escape and resolution. This also gives the listener/reader a multitude of strategies for coping with life’s issues. And not only reading stories, but acting them out in fantasy play, whether alone with one’s dolls and action figures, playing house or doctor with the neighborhood kids or acting in the school play. One parent, talking about his daughter playing dressed-up, commented that he was watching her “try on different futures for size.” Beautifully said!

How do we become the person we are? A good part of it appears to be dreaming ahead of time who we imagine we’d like to be. We get clues by noticing the people we admire, the stories we’re attracted to, the music we listen to and so on. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we are what we dream ourselves to be. Of course, there are all sorts of obstacles in the path to becoming ourselves—good dreamers with bad Executive functions, good Executives who didn’t’ dream enough, people who mindlessly signed up for the culture’s dream (rock star! Rich guy! Super-model!), kids denied the storied foundation of dreaming, an antagonistic surrounding culture and just plain bad luck. But it all starts with the dream image.

And so, on the last day of the year, the time for New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a good time to pause, to sort through the dream images and find your own, to publicly announce your intention to move one inch closer to who you have imagined yourself to be, to name the particular concrete steps needed. Also a good time to remember this piece of wisdom:

“Be careful what you wish for. It just may come true.”

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Meaning of Life

Now that I’ve got your attention—without even using the word sex—I just want to let everyone know about the garage sale I have coming up. Ha ha! Just kidding.

I woke up this morning with a sentence in my head and within the next ten minutes, the rest came tumbling out. I’ve learned to trust these things that appear out of the blue and follow them and that’s probably the number one job description of the artist. I suspect we all are visited occasionally by inspired phrases, images, ideas, melodies, what have you, but most of us are too busy arranging carpools for the kids to pay them the attention they deserve. It’s a short window before they get impatient and give up on us and are blown away to the winds like seeds in search of someone else’s socks. 

The artist is one who makes a deal with the Muse, first to arrange life to be receptive and open to the visit and second, to commit to hosting the visitation, feeding it and seeing it through until it has said what it came to say. And then when it leaves, a great deal of time spent shaping and re-shaping its message, refining, editing, re-arranging until everything tumbles into place.

And still not done. Then comes yet more work to get it out into the world so that it becomes more than a personal visit, has the possibility of touching others in a more finished, polished and palatable form. That requires the conversations with the club owners, galleries, publishers, etc., the business side of divine inspiration. Difficult and sometimes distasteful, but part of the deal you make to show how committed and serious you are. All with no guarantee that anybody cares to hear or see it, the possibility that even if your work does get out there, it doesn’t connect. Or maybe worse, it connects because of slick marketing and packaging, has its 15 seconds of fame and is soon forgotten.

Maybe it’s easier to just arrange carpools for the kids. More concrete and immediately satisfying.  But with my kids out of the house, I have no more excuses. So with that preamble, here is this morning’s poem, the meaning of life as it revealed itself to me on a Friday morning, ready for its 15 seconds of glory.

The Meaning of Life

Here we are until we’re not.
Each of us just one small dot.
Each of us born through a mother,
All but that small dot an other.
How to make of each a friend,
When to stand out, when to blend.
To know, to show, just why our birth,
Before we crumble back to earth.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Radical License Plates

Our last night in the nation’s capital was spent circumnambulating around the Capitol Building on a cold, crisp evening. From the Capitol steps, the multicolored Christmas tree was perfectly aligned with the Washington Monument in the distance, while in the night sky to the left, the crescent moon hung low with Venus its companion. Five-week old Zadie was snuggled close to my chest in blissful sleep and as we circled the building clockwise, I couldn’t help but offer some prayers of hope. Inside that building, the circus of power would awaken again in the New Year, wholly unmindful of the innocent little girl that I carried and millions like her. After seeing the line-up of clowns vying to be Ringmaster (with clips from the Daily Show), a circus ever more absurd and shameless and frankly, unbelievable, I worried for her future. Any one of the 8th graders at my school running for student council would be better qualified. And though one side seems, to my eyes, clearly more desperate and full of buffoonery masquerading as functioning adults, the big balloon of hope so many of us felt three years ago has had its air forced out by the self-referential game of politics so extraordinarily out of touch with simple common sense and common human decency.

Perhaps this has always been so. Perhaps not. Especially if one is to take to heart all the quotes engraved in stone in Washington’s monuments—the recent Martin Luther King Memorial, the FDR, the Jefferson, the Lincoln Memorial. Profound, inspiring, compassionate and hopeful quotes that lift us from our seats in the media circus and set us squarely on the ground, helping us to come back to our senses and remember that this country was built on a vision that needs to be constantly renewed each generation, each decade, each year, each day. In my role as the first Buddhist-Jewish-music-teacher-jazz-pianist-bagpipe-playing President (watch for me on the ticket!), I would march the Senate and House of Representatives down from the hill on a monthly field trip and have each one choose a quote and write an essay about, concluding with its relevance to the bill at hand. I’d also have them walk (dance?) around the Capitol Building at least once a month with a baby in their arms and renew their vows to offer that child a plausible future. Then switch babies to make sure that they weren’t lobbying just for their kind.

That Washington DC as a city is all about power has been noted by anyone who ever spent more than five minutes there. Social relationships are built entirely upon hierarchy. Who can I impress? Who is impressed by me? Nice to meet you, where are you on the scale? What can I get out of meeting you? Is this conversation helping me upgrade my status? I noticed it mostly being out with Zadie, who I believe in San Francisco would elicit many ooh’s and aah’s and smiles and people wondering whether to ask if I’m the Grandpa or Dad. But with some notable exceptions, most people didn’t seem the least bit interested. A little smile for a baby had nothing to offer in the climb to power.

The notable exceptions were the abundance of black folks in the Capitol Hill/ Eastern Market neighborhood where my daughter and husband live. Not only did they have time to comment on Zadie, but also took time to greet me and pass a few pleasantries even when I was Zadie-less. It was thrilling to see so many black people running the booths and stores at Eastern Market, a genuine community, warm, friendly, real. I wonder if any Senators shop there?

As for DC, I’m slowly getting to know it and it has many redeeming features. Like:

• Parking!! Every day as we went between the house we were staying and my daughter’s, there was street parking in front.

• Architecture. The charming, aesthetically-connected, well-cared-for row houses in so many neighborhoods, from low to middle to high income.

• Red lights that give you 60 to 70 seconds blinking to cross the street. When it’s in your favor, heaven for pedestrians. Hell for drivers—the lights are just too long!

• Intriguing lay-out of circles superimposed over grids, with timely parks. Aesthetically interesting, but driver-challenged, especially with one-way streets thrown into the mix.

• Eastern Market. Love it!

• Good Metro system.

• A few nice restaurants—Ted’s Bulletin, Old Ebbits. But pretty far behind San Francisco!

• Free museums and zoo!!! The waters of the Potomac and the cherry trees.

Most curious of all, here in the place of constant lobbying and jostling to keep the privileged groups in their havens of privilege, everyone who drives has a protest engraved on their license plate—“Taxation Without Representation.” Of course, nothing gets done about it, because most of the folks who commute to that big Capitol Building on the Hill don’t live in D.C.

Back in San Francisco, already sorely missing the weight of little Zadie in my arms, but ready to turn to the new year with renewed determination to help carve out a glorious future for her from my tiny little seat of power in my music room. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Music Experts

I’ve said it a thousand times—everyone is musical. And I’ve organized my life around proving it. But I recently heard on the radio some revealing research that shed some new light on the subject. Daniel Levitin, author of “This Is Your Brain on Music” was part of a research team that set about to quantify how performers evoke emotional responses in their listeners. They had a concert pianist perform a piece on a specially prepared piano that recorded the performance and then, through some technical process, was able to selectively remove all nuances of touch and tempo. It then made several different recordings of the same piece. On one end of the spectrum was the piece played mechanically with no variation in loudness and softness, all notes and beats played equally. At the other end was the original nuanced performance. In-between were various gradations— nuanced tempo, homogenized dynamics, subtleties of touch, regularity of tempo, etc. They then played the various recordings to a group of listeners and asked them to rate the quality of the performances.

Without fail, the listeners consistently ranked the performance with all nuances removed the lowest and ranked the original performance the highest. In quantifying the responses of the levels in-between, they discovered that subtlety in tempo evoked more emotional response than gradations of touch and dynamics. The punch line of the research was simply that emotion awakened through art communicates strongest when artists train themselves to manipulate the tones that pluck our heart strings with sensitivity and variety.

Not exactly a revolutionary insight, though one worth affirming. Whether in music, cooking, visual art, poetry or wine-tasting, the capacity to distinguish and appreciate all the shades of color between black and white gives a richness to our inner and outer lives. But for me, the most interesting discovery is that the listeners chosen for the test were a combination of professional musicians and the proverbial man on the street. And they both chose exactly the same!

That musicians listen with different ears because they understand the details of the music forms the basis of my chosen profession of music education—understanding feeds appreciation. But since music is the language of the emotion, it appears that without any technical training beyond previous exposure to the style, all people have the capacity to tell the difference between the mechanical and the inspired. The musicians might have the vocabulary to describe why one performance was better than the other, but the rest of us know when something is good.

This is important information for musicians. Sometimes if I’m performing piano for folks who don’t ordinarily listen to jazz, I think, “Well they don’t understand the style that well, I can get away with anything.” Bad idea! And at the other end, I’ve had many non-jazz aficionados confess to me after the concert, “You made me cry.” And after making my silly joke “I hope for the right reasons!” I’m impressed yet again by the power of music to communicate directly with the heart.

We are all music experts, regardless of training. But with a couple of qualifications and corresponding suggestions:

1)    This expertise is both given at birth by our mysterious capacity to respond to, understand and “speak” music and cultivated through exposure to a specific style. (It would be interesting to duplicate that research with examples of mechanical and nuanced sitar music or gamelan or West African drum choir. I suspect that listeners would not easily distinguish between inspired and mediocre without sufficient exposure to the grammar and syntax of a particular style.) Another way to say that is that a first step in music education is surrounding people with live or recorded examples of a musical style that soaks unconsciously into their understanding.

2)    One key factor of the experiment was attention and concentration. The listeners were in fact listening with their full attention instead of multi-tasking with music in the background. They also were listening with a purpose, asked to make an aesthetic judgment. We listen to music all the time while cooking, jogging, chatting at a party, but usually it is a very low-level listening. We should all take time to listen more deeply.

3)    If both the professional musicians and the “average” listener came to the same conclusion, am I out of a job? What’s the point of music education? Besides the obvious difference between being a passive listener and an active player, it is always a good idea to cultivate with the mind a conscious understanding of what the body and heart already know. I used to worry that knowing too much would interfere with my heartfelt response to music, distracting me by overanalyzing andworrying more about whether something was a first or second inversion chord than enjoying its effect. I suspect that could happen and if you’ve hung around music nerds talking shop, you might rightfully accuse them of missing the point.

But mostly such study has deepened my appreciation and enjoyment, as long as I remember to keep it in the background when actually listening or playing. And that’s probably true of everything we learn. The body and senses know it first and if it touches the heart, we’re motivated to keep exploring. When the mind begins to comprehend, learn a vocabulary to name, record and remember, work with ideas that connect and enlarge, we gain more control and mastery. Ultimately, the head, hand and heart work as a trio, with each taking turns leading the conversation. And that’s when things get interesting. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Reggie the Red-Nosed Reindeer

When my daughter Talia was small, we were driving around looking at Christmas decorations and passed one house with Santa and his reindeer mixed with a manger scene. In her infinite wisdom, Talia asked “Why is Jesus there? What does he have to do with Christmas?”

So I told her the story. “It was a cold and foggy night in a little town in Bethlehem. Jack Frost was nipping at the baby Jesus’s nose and Santa was preparing to deliver his gifts. Jesus had asked for a pair of skates, a sled and picture book, but all Santa had left was frankinsence, gold and myrrh, which he bought from three wise men he passed on the way. While chestnuts roasted on an open fire, Rudolph guided the sleigh with his red nose, almost knocking down Frosty the Snowman when he landed. Santa put the presents under the verdant branches of the Christmas tree, ate a few cookies and flew off into the silent night past the partridge in the pear tree.”

Or something like that.

One would be hard-pressed to find a story more convoluted than the hodge-podge of fragments that have been thrown together under the guise of the Christmas story. Most of us probably know that Rudolph is not mentioned in the New Testament, but we might be surprised to know that the three kings can only be found in the Gospel of Matthew, that the number three is not mentioned and they are called Magi, not kings or wise men, more likely Zoroasterian astrologers than kings.

Much has been written about the origins of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, the snow-covered lit villages (all rare commodities in ancient Bethlehem) and other pasted-on traditions that became part of our image of Christmas. These stories too numerous to fit into the Blog format, but let’s talk about the reindeer. Is that how the Kings—oops, wise men—oops, Magi—rode in to visit? Might there have been 8 of them?

It took 1823 years before the reindeer got into the picture, flying in on the imagination of Clement Moore when he penned “The Night Before Christmas” (real title: "A Visit from St. Nicholas"). He made them up and named them and they traveled from his pen into our collective imagination to become an indelible part of the lore. 116 years later (that’s 1939), Rudolph joined the team because of an advertising campaign by the store Montgomery Ward’s. They had an employee named Robert May write a story to be given away to children and voila! Donder and Blitzen were welcoming Rudolph (after some initial harassment) and some 2 million children reading the free copy given to them when their parents shopped at the store. Letters of appreciation starting pouring in (not to May—he was the anonymous author) and more were printed.

Eight years later, a cartoon short was made and two years after that, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the Rudolph song. Gene Autry, the media cowboy, recorded the song in Christmas of 1949, eventually selling 25 million copies, until the 1980’s, the second best-selling record of all time. Comic books, TV specials and feature-length films followed and with books, sheet music, records, TV shows and movies behind it, Rudolph joined the weird club of Jesus, the Three Kings/Magi/ Wise Men, St. Nicholas/ Santa, Dasher-Prancer et al to become a firmly entrenched icon of the Christmas season.

There is an archive in Dartmouth College, May’s Alma Mater, with more details of the story, including a list of other names May considered. Top of the list was Rollo and Reginald. Just one decision differently made and we’d all be singing about Reggie the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in India

One of the more unusual Christmases I’ve had in my life was in Kerala, India in 1978. Since this is the year I finally returned to Kerala (see February postings), it seems a good time to invite a guest Blogger—my 27-year old self—to tell that story. So this Christmas Eve entry comes from the journal I was keeping at the time, more or less exactly as I wrote it:

December 24, 1978—Varkala a pleasant village leading to the Arabian Sea. Checked into the Guest House and walked down to a small, but quite beautiful beach. Stood a long time gazing out into the shimmering water, just as I used to gaze out over the lights of L.A. up at Mt. Baldy Zen Center each night of the 7-day retreat, imagining everyone cozy inside their houses, filled with the warmth and love I hoped Christmas would awaken in them, and me silently blessing them all. Somewhere halfway across the world, people are awakening to the last day of breathless anticipation before the final release. Some are stoking wood-burning stoves or out sledding while here a purple-sari’ed woman walks slowly amongst the palm trees. The New York Times no doubt filled with its portraits of the needy, television awash with Christmas specials, the streets bustling with last minute shopping, the radios playing the old familiar songs. Whereas we sit down to a meal of chapatti and vegetable curry, with boiled bananas and the ever-present tea.

Earlier this morning, Karen got through to her parents on the phone and had a 17 minute talk with her folks that left her in tears—her first Christmas away in 28 years. I talked for minute or so, blurting out whatever came up to fill the $10 a minute silences. (How strange to talk on a phone again! Telephones, cars, record players, the daily realities of my American life, are simply not part of my world anymore here in India.) Karen’s folks seemed fine, there’s a little snow, Barclay took Pammie to the movies and John’s out caroling.

John’s out caroling! That image struck deep and my heart almost burst imagining him going door to door in the snow-lined streets of Plymouth, Michigan, that “Leave It to Beaver” suburb of my childhood fantasy. I imagined him singing with wide eyes and O-shaped mouth in joyous song.

Sometimes it seems as if my whole life is an attempt to live up to, to live in, the heights of my childhood visions. Christmas was usually a time when those visions rose highest and there was that one moment in particular when the world stopped and froze itself indelibly on my memory, made a permanent home in my heart. And like all our best moments, it was nothing spectacular, simply walking home on Sheridan Avenue alone at night, the lights twinkling, the streets piled high with snow, the Christmas songs singing in my ears, and stopping outside my house to gaze at it all, knowing that there could be no heaven greater than this. My sister was playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on the organ and listening to that old familiar carol play, I was granted a glimpse of a life of boundless joy and fathomless love. “Then rang the bells, so loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”

If a genie appeared to grant me one wish, I would without hesitation wish that the whole world stand there with me on Sheridan Avenue. And if I look at it closely, I see that the whole world did stand with me, is still standing there now, just as it stands on top of Mt. Baldy blessing the lights below, just as it sits here under the ceiling fan with curtains waving in the breeze. There is simply nothing to do but rejoice, to lift the voice in song, to open the heart to love, to bow the head in gratitude. May Christmas sweep over the world in its purest expression, lifting each and every person from their sorrows, their sufferings, their self-created prisons, into the realm of everlasting joy, of wide-eyed wonder and visions of sugar-plum fairies, of at least one moment of knowing why one is here on this earth. May I ride with Santa Claus tonight, dropping blessing down the chimney so that on Christmas morning, all sentient beings will wake up to themselves. GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO!

I hope that 27-year-old would be pleased to know that 33 years later, though constantly knocked off track by my own failings and the world’s disappointments, I’m still working on keeping alert to miracles and trying to be faithful to that life of “boundless joy and fathomless love,” Ho! Ho! Ho!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Got Gout? No Whey!

Except for the occasional annoying e-Christmas card, personal e-mail is down these days. But the Spam quotient is way up, merchants making their last bid to Buy! Buy! Buy! One of the more intriguing ones I just received: 60% Off USDA Certified Organic Whey!

Whey?!! I hadn’t heard of that since Miss Muffet’s traumatic spider incident. So naturally, off to Google and sure enough, whey is making a comeback. It’s the liquid left over in the cheese-making process after the milk is curdled—hence, Miss Muffet’s “curds and whey”—and now is being marketed as a supplemental protein.

And speaking of old-fashioned things that I thought had disappeared, apparently gout is making a comeback. What is gout, you ask? It’s a form of inflammatory arthritis that attacks the big toe. Cases have doubled in recent decades, caused by too much whey in the diet. Ha ha! Just kidding. But it's true that gout has increased and is attributed to over-consumption of red meat, shellfish and hard liquor. 
I used to read about it in Dickens and old books and it turns out that many famous people had it—authors like John Milton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Joseph Conrad, Voltaire, scientists Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, politicians Ben Franklin and King Henry VIII. It was known as the “disease of kings” because of its association with high living (see diet above).

Recent studies revealed another source that increases the risk of gout—soft-drinks. Not as high-class, so I predict the status of gout will decline. (I imagine two people complaining about health back in the 1700's. "My rheumatism is killing me!" "That's too bad, but I'm suffering from gout." "Gout! Wow! Nice going!") Next time you drink a Coke, check the label for WARNING: YOU MAY GET GOUT! 

And consider ordering a glass of whey instead. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Baby Jesus in Finland

Poor baby Jesus. Born in a lowly manger to a single income family and the father a blue-collar worker. Things were looking up when three wise men appeared, but instead of gifts like housing or health insurance, all they had to offer was frankinsence, good for masking the smell of cow dung in the manger, and some myrhh. which could be used for—“Hmm, exactly what is that anyway?” I’m imagining Joseph and Mary thinking while putting on their most polite faces thanking the wise men for the gift. Apparently, some could be used for a cosmetic—you may be poor, but you can still look good—some for glue, handy for home repair, and some for embalming, in case things got really bad. And yes, there was some gold, but only enough to invest in Jesus’ college fund and hope that some greedy Bethlehem trader didn’t collapse the banks.

And speaking of college, what about the education options? Baby Jesus started his life with the crime of being poor in a cruel culture of rich folks who shamelessly passed laws to hurt other people’s children. It all began with a program called Teach for Roman Judaea which threw young unqualified teachers into the roughest neighborhoods of Bethlehem, destroying the teacher’s ideals and interest in teaching and feeding the cynicism and hopelessness of the students they babysit. (Some speculate that the later Roman tradition of throwing Christians to the lions was modeled from this sport. Except the lions were much happier than the students.) Then when one unhappy parent complained about the teachers’ lack of qualifications, the rulers got nervous and passed a law labeling teachers with no certification “highly qualified—because we say so” and sending them into the poorest neighborhoods where people lived in mangers.

When young Jesus finally found a school, such as it was, his penchant for metaphorical thinking was squashed when his teachers told him time and time again, “these thoughts are not on the test.” Followed by “and you better start studying or we’re going to put you to work cleaning the manger so you learn something about the work ethic.”

We all know what happened next. Fed up with the system, Jesus dropped out of school, grew a beard and walked around the countryside barefoot with 12 other guys, the beginnings of the Occupy Roman Judaea Movement. He had some weird notions of the meek and poor inheriting the kingdom and rich people began to try to stuff camels through the eyes of needles to see if they had a chance of passing the Ultimate Test. That must have been quite a sight. When it was clear that money had no currency in Heaven, they just decided to get rid of the guy.

Some speculate that frustrated by his first go-round and anxious to go to a better school, there may be a Second Coming and baby Jesus will be amongst us yet again. My advice? Don’t be born in the U.S. —or at least read about the case of Renee vs. Duncan before you decide. 

I suggest Finland.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Baby Whisperer

With baby still leading the day, it’s inevitable that these Blogs are Zadie-centered. I had a proud-Grandpa day yesterday, managing to calm Zadie when she was threatening a prolonged period of Waah! and able to give my daughter the gift of time and relief. It was a happy feeling, but one that won’t be possible next week when I return to the other side of the country with at least three months until the next visit.

I do think that the enormous flaw of modern life is the isolation we feel and the increased weight on our small shoulders. We love to parrot the popular soundbyte of “the whole village to raise the child,” but are far from organizing our lives around that possibility. The few friends I have from Ghana have confirmed that the sense of family is quite larger there than our nuclear version, that it’s often hard to distinguish Uncle from Father and that indeed, everyone, including older siblings and cousins and neighbors, pitches in to be with baby. And really, one needn't go to Ghana to feel that dynamic of big families who stay rooted in one spot. Indeed, for most of our human history, children were communally raised. But now with increased mobility, small families in closed houses, parents and their adult children living far apart, we need to compensate and create some new kinds of villages. Healthier and happier for all to spread out the care and work and pleasure of child-raising. 

But back to the situation at hand—a cranky baby that needs attention. A few pointers for fellow grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. to consider when calming baby. If you’re rolling your eyes here, I probably deserve it. One or two lucky sessions hardly qualifies me for the title of “Baby Whisperer,” but hey! for the moment, they worked. Next time baby is fussy and she or he has been recently fed, consider the following. Not only might they help calm baby, but help you feel better too!

• Buddhist chants in a front snuggly with her head against your chest. The vibrations soothe both baby and you. If you don’t know the chants, fake it. Good in a dark room.

• Dance. CD’s okay, but better if you’re singing.

• Get outside. Fresh air is good for all. Front snuggly still recommended over stroller. Talk to baby about what you see around you. Or sing.

• Work with baby wrapped in front or back (I’m typing this with her in the snuggly!). Rhythmic work (chopping vegetables, folding laundry, washing dishes) particularly good, especially if you’re talking or singing while you do it. (Well, like everything else in my life, it all circles back to Play, Sing and Dance. And with whole generations untrained, what kind of parents and grandparents will they be?)

• If all else fails, feed baby.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

From Waah!! to Wow!!

“Whatever baby wants” is the directing force of our vacation time with grand-daughter Zadie. Her biorhythms trump all artificial clocks and any pre-conceived plans. As it should be. As it is with my Mom at the other end of the life journey. She absolutely loves it when I play piano for her, but when she’s hungry, ain’t no way I can even finish the musical phrase without incurring her wrath.

And when the body is at peace and not in the Waah! mode, the Spirit tends to be in the Wow! mode. With my Mom, the simple act of stepping into fresh air is enough to get her oohing and aahing with appreciation. And though Zadie’s verbal appreciation is limited, the look on her face appears to articulate wonder. I say appears because who knows what is really going on in the 4-week old mind. I know her eyesight is far from fully developed, but looking at her staring out at the sparkling lights of the Christmas tree, it certainly looked like a lot of Wow! going on.

In-between 4-weeks and 90-years old is a human being with a lot of complex thought coursing through the synapses, thoughts that can obscure the Wow and talk itself through the Waah. But when it comes down to it, that’s about the sum of our life. Add the steady hum of normal consciousness to the pain and the pleasure and there you have it:  Waaah!!!— Hummmmmm.—  Wow!!!

One thing I’m noticing is that the depth of the Waahs seems inversely proportionate to the height of the Wows. Joy and Grief are roommates and if you’re willing to enter through the door to visit one, you need to be prepared to meet the other. That’s why most people prefer to visit Blah and Distraction next door. I’ve been blessed with a year of 4th of July sparklers and Christmas light twinklings, most of it captured in these Blogs. But in the EKG of the heart’s path, there have been some mighty dips in the Waah-world, much of it caused by people who have closed the door to the two W’s and opted for the daily drone of mediocrity, turned that hum into humdrum. And while I try to analyze and reason and present strategic solutions of decisions poorly made, what I really want to do is bang my fists on the floor in two-year old tantrum or cry out with 4-week old lungs until I get attention. Maybe I’ll try it in my next confrontation. Instead of, “I understand where you’re coming from, but have you considered?…” 
I’ll just cry out WAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

More to say about this, but Zadie is crying out for attention. Whatever baby wants…

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Zadie's Zeide

In the complex plot of the human drama, I’ve played just about all the roles. Son, brother, grandson, cousin. Husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, father-in-law. Friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, student. And somewhere in there, a second cousin and cousin-once-removed and other obscure relationships that make my brain hurt trying to figure them out.

But the one that moved me head and shoulders over them all was the moment I became a father. And close on its heels, the moment I became a grandfather. It happened (as you faithful Blog readers know), four weeks ago, but became real yesterday at Carousel No. 4 of the Delta baggage claim in Dulles Airport. There I met my little Zadie.

She was perfect. She was beautiful. She was calm and cool and collected.

She was asleep.

She woke up just as the last bag came out and it wasn’t mine. She went through a series of distorted faces, mirroring my own disgust that the airlines might have lost my bag. She gave a little whimper —my thoughts exactly— and we took her out of the bassinet and I got to hold her while talking to the baggage claim guy. My bag weirdly was on the next Carousel, Zadie was getting hungry and for all I longed to be everything a grandfather can be to this little miracle, here is where I couldn’t be of any help. And so that pleasurable feeling of grandparenthood began—the option to hand off the baby. You get all the good parts and when things get hard, it’s “Here, Mom and Dad, I’m off to my book group/ Pilates class/ Jazz Festival concert!”

With exactly one meeting under my belt with my four-week old granddaughter, I’m not exactly qualified to expound on the pleasures of being Zadie’s Zeide (the Yiddish word for Grandpa). And when I am, what am I going to say that hasn’t been said a hundred million times before? But that’s the way it is with everything. We’ve heard it all before, but when it’s our turn to experience it, we feel as if we’ve discovered something for the first time.

Sitting in the car returning from the airport with Zadie’s hand in mine, I couldn’t help but feel the parallel with sitting with my Mom these days. One hand old and rough, the other so young and smooth, but both speaking the language of no talk, just the eloquence of skin to skin connection. Out of the car, on to snuggles, kisses, hugs. And just why do we reserve this only for babies and elders? Why not have a little snuggling and kissing in-between items on the staff meeting agenda? With the check-out people at the grocery store? With our car mechanics? Well, they kind of do in Spain and Latin American countries and I always find it extraordinary to kiss someone you’re first meeting. It makes a difference.

So off on a crisp Sunday afternoon to see Zadie again, begin singing my repertoire of songs, teach her the Funga Alafia motions and Table Rhythms and samba moves and all the wonderful pointless things I’ve spent my life learning. Yippee!!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Twilight at Stow Lake

Granted the gift of time, I have the good sense to go to Stow Lake at twilight time. Find a spot of sun and lean against a log and just sit quietly in the dying rays of the light. Across from me, two tall cypress trees and the setting sun that rests on their branches, its ball of brightness suspended in the air and then reflected yet again in the water. Five geese soar past the one, three ducks swim through the other, and all become, for one brief moment, shimmering light in motion. A woman walks by with her dog and comments, “This is the life, eh?”

I watch it all as a question: When shall I leave my life? I mean the one spent with children in the sacred chapel of my school music room. I’m listening hard for an answer, but don’t know in which language it will appear. Don’t know which part of the body will decide. The ear that can’t easily hear what kids are saying amidst the ambient xylophone noise? The back that can’t lift the bass xylophone without risk? The nerves that are exhausted from kids who are explosive? The head that is counting the years and the finances and treating it all as a math problem? Or the heart, that at the moment is breaking watching the hungry termites feed on the supporting posts I helped place so carefully. Okay, I know they must eat, but there’s plenty of scrap wood elsewhere. How tragic it would be to leave in bitterness and yet, neither should I stay in stubbornness.

The sun and the cypress and the water are speaking and I lean in to listen. Who will help me translate? One small image appears. The sun doesn’t will itself to set, in fact, doesn’t move at all. It just keeps its light burning and its gaze constant while the earth turns away from it. “Stay steady,” it says. “Let the world turn as it will. Don’t take it personally when it looks away and gives you the cold shoulder. Keep constant and it will turn back and be grateful for the warmth.”

As good an answer as any. So I’ll return to the kids in a few weeks and keep listening for the announcement. And if it doesn’t come, I suppose I’ll just keep on until my last breath, perhaps at the end of the 11th verse of The Frozen Logger, or the Thumpity Thump Thump of Frosty the Snowman

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dancing with Elephants

How do good-hearted people let bad things happen? Ah, there’s a question. We love to judge from afar all those who sat passively by while the Holocaust, Apartheid, Genocide and the other horrors of human history raged around them, but fail to see those same forces at work close at home. Could the schools teach us something so useful as this? Learn to recognize the warning signs of leaders at work manufacturing consent, numbing outrage, silencing protest and hell-bent on carrying out their agendas regardless of the consequences? Well, no, because many schools are based on those methods! But here in the Free Zone of the Internet, I offer my own little lesson, a five-step primer about how people in power get good people to comply with their dubious agenda.  

Here’s how it goes:

STEP 1: Secrecy. Keep the people in the dark, ignorant and uninformed. When the truth comes out, decent human beings will feel some remorse and say what they always say:  “We didn’t know.” Or some, more honestly, “We didn’t care to know.” In either case, an ignorant constituency is one that can be molded and manipulated to the leaders’ whims.

STEP 2: Fear. Create an explicit or implicit threat—“If you break the conspiracy of silence, we will go after you. Your job, your reputation is at stake. Play it safe and shut-up—or else.”

STEP 3: Lies. When convenient, lie. “Yes, we found nuclear weapons in Iraq.” “Everything is fine, the slaves are happy to be working on the plantation.” “ The system is working well, just trust us.”

STEP 4: No recourse. Give the illusion of a proper procedure and channel of communication and then close them all. Then slap their hand if they protest and scold them for not going through the proper channels.

STEP 5: Don’t rock the boat. Create the sense of emergency when normal ways of doing business are suspended. Or keep it going far past the actual emergency—Code Orange forever. “Yes, there are elephants everywhere in the boat leaving big piles of steaming manure, but all the more reason to sit still and don’t rock it.”

This is my summary of the malevolent forces consciously at work to keep people with decent values and good intentions from speaking their mind. I’ve lived through 8 tortured years of the Bush junta expertly employing these methods and now am struggling with a similar atmosphere closer to home that I won’t make public just yet. But meanwhile, how to effectively keep it all in check and even turn it around?

STEP 1: Refuse ignorance. A doctor can’t heal without symptoms. Recognize them and publicly name the disease. As soon as we have language for something, we have the possibility of grappling with it.

STEP 2: Organize. People fear alone and take it on as their personal problem. When five people admit their common fears, now it’s an issue. Safety in numbers is as true today as it was yesterday— one outspoken person can be fired, 25 is more difficult.

STEP 3: Expose and Spread the Word. “All I have is my voice to undo the folded lie” said W.H. Auden and if we keep the voice silent, we abdicate its responsibility. While we have the luxury of an uncensored Internet, we have a powerful tool for getting Truth out instantly and far and wide.

STEP 4: Civil Disobedience: By all means, try the offered channels. When they shut down or show they were never opened to begin with, create your own channel. The truth must out.

STEP 5: Eject the Elephant: Refuse to sit quietly in a room filled with elephants or Emperors with no clothes. Call them out. When the elephants are in the room, there is no room to dance. And the naked Emperors are just plain unsightly.

And speaking of dancing, my daughter (bless her caring, socially conscious heart!) sent me a timely video which you are kindly requested to watch. 3 minutes long and well-worth it.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the first to stand up and only one in a thousand of us is up to the task. But more important—and still courageous—is the first follower. Or rather co-equal dancing partner. Look what happens in those three minutes and imagine those folks as your community members when things start to go awry.

When the elephants in the room see everyone dancing, they’ll go out and join them too. So strip off your shirt, start dancing, invite someone to join you, open the door and let the elephants out. That’s my plan, at any rate. I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Skateboard U.

I was watching a bunch of young skateboarders the other day tipping and flipping and zipping around on their skateboards, turning and whirling, jumping up and off of concrete blocks. My first thought, as it often is, was “Go home and read some Sartre.” But the more I watched, the more I realized that I was witnessing a prototype of the ideal learning environment.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink identifies succinctly (and yes, I’m furious with him that he did it and not me!) three essential drives of our bizarre species, the things we all share that motivate us to get up each morning and hit the pillow at night feeling we’ve done good work. And I realized that all three were clearly present in the skateboard scene.

The first is Autonomy, the freedom to find our own way to orchestrate our learning. We may have the guidance of a teacher or a systematic structure to scaffold our understanding and measure our progress, but at some point in the process, we need the autonomy to figure things out our own way at our own pace with our own standard of success and failure. The skateboard gathering was Autonomy Central, each person working on their own particular tricks without anyone looking over their shoulder demanding a certain level of performance or a series of steps to be mastered according to the National Standards of Skateboarding Timetable. All the Nervous Nellies who wonder how the skateboard performance can be measured, tested, ranked and filed away can rest assured that there is a natural assessment of success and failure in the form of skinned knees, flying skateboards and crashing into walls. Of course, at the Skateboard Championships, specific standards may be applied, but not at Stage 1 of the learning process. And besides, I suspect most of these young folks were spending their time skateboarding because 1) it’s fun 2) all of Sartre’s books were not available at the library or 3) it gives them some sense of power and control. Which leads us to Drive 2:

Mastery—that’s what struck me the most watching these kids, the sheer determination to get back on the board and work out their particular trick over and over and over and yet over again until it became encoded in the muscle memory. It’s the exact same process as the concert pianist practicing, the painter painting 1,000 still lifes or basketball player shooting 1,000 free throws. The sense of freedom that comes from mastery, the sense of control over the task at hand, the struggle against the resistance of a particular medium, the urge to bring together the ephemeral vision in one’s head with the tangible reality of the physical substance one is crafting— all of it was at work in Skateboard U. Watching the skateboarder’s attempt to defy gravity, understand physics with their toes, weave geometric patterns around the plaza, was poetry in motion and a lesson in human perseverance. But is that enough to justify all the hours devoted to it?

And that brings us to Purpose, the sense that there’s a greater goal behind it all that keeps us engaged when frustration hits or it’s raining outside. And here I really need to go into the field and put on my Studs Terkel hat and actually talk to these young folks: “Why are you doing this?” But that would mean postponing this Blog for a few days, so for now, I’ll just guess. I suspect that simply the pleasure of Mastery might be enough for many of them, but alongside that, they’re fulfilling their quota of other deep human drives— companionship with fellow enthusiasts, exercise, the thrill of risk and on-the-edge daredevilry, fresh air, the joy of transcending our human limitations and flying for a moment, going faster than our legs can carry us.

All that is well and good, but I suspect that Daniel Pink’s idea of purpose is something larger than oneself that brings good to the world. And here is where Skateboard U. needs a few more subjects in its curriculum. Apply the same autonomy and enthusiasm to stewardship, social justice, youth in trouble and you got yourself a great learning institution.

Well, actually, some skateboarders might be perceived a youth in trouble and though Skateboard U. doesn’t keep them off the streets, it puts them on the streets with a fun and mostly non-invasive activity. And the Occupy movement could be more mobile with skateboards. In-between practicing their tricks, skateboarders could deliver meals to the infirm. A little creative adjustment and we’re three for three in the Daniel Pink curricula.

As for Sartre, he was a depressed guy with way too much angst. He probably just needed to get out of the house, get some exercise and fresh air and hang with his homies at Skateboard U. We would have missed existentialism, but hey, who cares?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Life in the Hallways

I spent most of 3rd grade in the hall. My teacher, Miss Rice, wrote on my report card (I still have it!): “Douglas is very, very annoying.” And truth be told, I probably was. I generally felt like school was really cutting into my day and keeping me from roaming around the park skipping stones in the lake and climbing trees and such. But still, Ms. Rice, I think you didn’t wholly understand me.

I often wonder what kind of student I would have been if I had gone to the school I teach in. I imagine still on the feisty, mischievous side, but so much happier—especially on Wrong Words Day! (See last posting—and by the way, it was every bit as wonderful as I thought it would be, the highlight singling out the proverbial “bad boy” for not singing the wrong words!) I suspect that my commitment to the kind of school The San Francisco School has been was a reaction to school as I knew it—and as so many have known it. Out of movies on the plane, I watched an interview with Jennifer Aniston talking about her Waldorf School experience with great affection. I like the idea that people become who they are partly because of their school and not in spite of it. The latter was certainly true for many of the people who shaped American culture— like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, for starters, most of whom didn’t get past 5th grade.

But I say “partly” because school and family and our surrounding culture can only go so far in shaping us. Read James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code for a modern interpretation of an ancient understanding that we come with our character fully formed as an image that our soul grows toward. Our lives are like a slowly developing photograph—some deep part of us knows what the picture will look like and guides us toward the choices that help it come into focus. Schools and such can support and encourage us in our life-long journey to become ourselves or hinder and distract us. But we ultimately stand alone with our daimon (that hidden knowing part of our soul) and it’s a life work to learn to listen to the right voices to guide us.

And so back to Irving Berlin. He escaped to New York from the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia when he was five years old, lived in a cold-water windowless flat on the Lower East Side, and dropped out of school at 8 years old to sell papers to help the family survive. He discovered that if he sang out while selling, he could earn a few extra pennies and, with his daimon whispering in his ear, told his mother that his ambition was to be a singing waiter in a saloon. As a teenager, he realized that first ambition while living in the squalor of the Bowery and then began to make up his own songs. He got his break in Vaudeville with his first hit song, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, in 1911 and went on to write some 1500 songs over 60 years, many of which are an indelible part of the Great American Songbook. (One of which is White Christmas—go figure! What would his cantor father have thought?)

And here we arrive at my next re-lyricked song, sung to Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (If you don’t know the tune, go do your homework.) Inspired by my friend Fran Hament, who wrote her own version about life in the hallways of the Jewish Home, this is the summary of my 3rd grade in Harrison School.

I spent my 3rd grade in the hallways
Got kicked out of class into the hallways
The teacher called me pest
And though I did protest
I had to take my desk, into the hallways, always.

Life didn’t seem so fair in the hallways
No one seemed to care in the hallways
Not for just a day, not for just a week
But my whole 3rd grade in hallways.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wrong Words Day

It’s tomorrow! My favorite day of the year! A Holiday only known to a select few children, who I imagine tingling with the same kind of excitement and anticipation that I feel. And though I’m not officially at school this Fall, I get to go in and lead it. Oh, joy of joys!

Now before I reveal this cult initiation, be prepared to pay the price. Grab a cup of tea and settle in. For before I began Blogging, I wrote articles, articles not bound by the short form of the Blog. Though I have fallen long of the best Bloggers, who get their point across in pithy, condensed speech and imagery, I’ve mostly managed about a page per Blog. Today I’m pasting in the whole article, word for word. Your initiation fee into this secret society is to stick with it. And I promise to compensate by a few short pithy postings in the days to follow. Deal?

Okay, settle back and discover the secret joy of…

Wrong Words Day: A Study in Cultural Health  ©2005 Doug Goodkin

“Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”

It is time for the annual school holiday sing and I know what’s coming. Three notes of Jingle Bells and Batman will make his unwelcome appearance. Consonants and vowels will clash as some children sing the right words and others don’t, producing a musical mush intolerable to a sensitive music teacher’s ear. What to do?

Luckily, I’m prepared. I’ve been here before and I have a plan. I drop my voice to my “this is serious mode” mode and dramatically issue a warning:

“I know what you’re thinking. But let me be very clear. If so much as one child out of the hundred gathered here today sings or mouths or even thinks the wrong words to this song, all of you will be punished. I think you know what I’m talking about. (Dramatic pause here) Yes, Wrong Words Day will be cancelled!!!”

A hush falls over the room and as we begin dashing over the snow in a one-horse open sleigh. I look at certain children—I know who they are and so do you—struggle mightily to keep from blurting out what their heart’s desire longs for more than anything. This is the ultimate lesson in delayed gratification. If they can beat back their impulses and somehow keep the words from leaping out their throats, they will be richly rewarded— Wrong Words Day will finally arrive.

Let’s face it. Singing naughty words to certain songs is a natural force of childhood as inevitable as candy. If you are trained, as I have been, to meet children at their level, to lead them to who they might become by starting with who they are, you must come to grips with this conundrum. To forbid it is pointless— it merely creates the type of student who behaves in front of the teacher and goes crazy when the teacher leaves the room. To encourage it is worse. Kids learn that nothing is sacred, everything is fair game for ridicule and adults stuck at a seven-year old mentality are cool. To ignore it is to fail your obligation to your discipline— as noted, two texts to the same melody is musical murder. How we as adults react to the impulse to sing the wrong words—forbidding, encouraging or ignoring—will give it a particular sort of power. The question that faces us is “How much weight does it deserve?”

Enter Wrong Words Day. The concept is simple. Neither entirely forbidding them nor overly encouraging them, we put children’s mischievous impulses into an appropriate container. For one madcap singing time, we give kids the chance to sing out to their heart’s content, “Set the old man’s beard on fire” right in front of their teachers—and not get in trouble! “Amazing!” the kids are thinking, “Here they are, those same teachers who daily remind me to raise my hand, not run in the hall, share my markers and play fair, and I get to sing ‘Deck the halls with poison ivy’— and some of them are smiling! This is as good as it gets!”

You may be wondering, “Why would a morally upstanding music teacher such as myself, someone responsible for teaching children to behave properly in a civil society, create such an event?” And the best answer is, “Come see for yourself. “ For if you would be so fortunate as to witness this spectacle and take off your judgmental glasses for a moment to truly watch the children, you would see them grinning from ear to ear as they shout out those deliciously sinful words “We three kings from Orient are. Tried to smoke a rubber cigar…” “Shalom chaverim, shalom chaverim..let’s eat raw oats, let’s eat raw oats…” “ He sings a love song, as we walk along, walking around in women’s underwear.” You would see kids being 100% kids as they’re given a 20-minute pardon from the hard work of stretching towards adulthood.

And then—please note—after this feast of bawdy irreverence, you would then hear them sing the right words to the same songs in lovely light singing voices with an equally appropriate reverent quiet. I might even suggest that the depth of that reverence is in proportion to the height of the irreverence. Since both impulses reside equally in all our breasts, it won’t do to simply try to choose one over the other. Instead, we should recognize both, learn the value of each and figure out where to place them.

Ancient ritual, modern psychology and the children’s instincts suggest that acting out darker impulses in fantasy play, ritual and art is a healthy way to deal with them and helps children (and adults!) not have to act them out in real life. Our job teaching children is not to wag our fingers at them with stern lectures, but to give them plenty of opportunities to try out different roles, behaviors and thoughts in safe containers. That can mean leaving them alone to play— not feeding their fantasies with killer video games and Barbie scenarios, but letting their own imagination roam freely in the kind of fantasy play—house, guns, doctor—that children need to sort things out. It can mean reviving a genuine arts curriculum in schools so that children can personify a quirky part of themselves as a character in a story or put their strange visions into a painting or work through their powerlessness being the king or queen in the school play. It can mean creating events like Wrong Words Day or Come to School in Pajamas Day. It can mean acting out the story of the 12 Mischievous Icelandic Trolls, with the kids themselves brainstorming all the bad things they can think to do. Paraphrasing Blake’s “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” kids will learn more about what’s good by acting out what’s bad (in play, art or ritual) than by memorizing the Ten Commandments.

Not that such moral codes don’t have their place. From Buddha’s Eightfold Path to Mohammed’s Five Precepts to the Confucian Analects to Miss Manners, cultures and religions of all times and places have understood that society requires agreed-upon conventions and standards of behavior to operate smoothly. But most have also recognized that our efforts to behave properly and follow the path of moral rectitude take their toll on the psyche. Simply put, our attempts to be constantly good are dangerous when we ignore our irrepressible desire to be bad. We all want to eat the whole carton of ice cream sometimes or skip work and go fishing or tell the minister he’s a pompous old bore instead of thanking him for the lovely sermon.

Recognizing these desires, many cultures have built-in release valves that give us an opportunity to let some air out as we expand towards our higher nature. For many, this comes in the form of humor. Humor is the pin that can pop the balloon of over-inflated moral purity and save us from a devastating explosion down the line. Virtually every major religion has a figure who functions as the fool or trickster or clown. Hindus have stories about Krishna as a mischievous boy, Muslims have the tales of that fool, Mullah Nasrudin, Eastern European Jews a cycle of Chelm stories, Buddhists have a big jolly Laughing Buddha and various Native peoples worldwide have their trickster stories with Coyote, Raven or Anansi the Spider. Even the Catholic Church once celebrated the Feast of Fools where everything was turned upside down for a few days in the New Year— in the church itself, the town drunk might be crowned the Pope, old shoes burned instead of incense, lewd songs sung, and sausages eaten at the altar. I imagine that there was a different quality to the genuine reverence when the normal Mass resumed.

We seem to have lost touch with that sense of humor folded within civil conduct and spiritual reverence. Without official sanction from our religious or cultural institutions— be they school, church or Congress— sacred and secular, light and dark, good and evil, are pulled apart and seen in opposition to each other. The ancient Greeks seemed to understand that our need to cause trouble and get into trouble was connected with our divine urges and thus invested their gods with all sorts of human foibles. But now, we are back in the world of two colors only— the Fundamentalist mentality that preaches moral virtue (and inevitably practices something quite different) and the Hedonist mentality that preaches fulfilling every whim and desire. The conversation between our sacred and secular selves has become a shouting match with both sides losing.

So I return to my job as a music teacher with a charge much deeper than sharing a few cute songs and making sure that kids recognize quarter notes. With the demise of official fools and tricksters, inspired ritual and soul-serving mythology, it is art that has kept the conversation going between the Heaven and Hell of the human psyche. (Think of Bosch’s painting, Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Coltrane’s probing saxophone on his album Ascension. ) My job is to pass on the tools of art so that children can explore the heights and depths of their minds and hearts. For though we may need some degree of moral codes to guide us, we first need to experience the full range of who we are. Art gives us experiences in images, motions, sounds and stories that lay out the complexity of desire and erase the conventional lines between saint and sinner.

Children, so close to the root of life, are a strange mix of extravagant desire and wondrous imagination, narcissistic indulgence and selfless giving, thoughtless cruelty and tender caring. They equally have the Spirit’s thirst for light, clarity and order and the Soul’s need for the dark, the strange, the extraordinary. If we are to be effective teachers, we must come to grips with all sides of the child’s nature (which, after all, is our own), leading our students towards civil conduct and spiritual progress while still recognizing and finding forms for the soul’s darkest needs.

And a good place to start is Wrong Words Day.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What Kids Remember

It was time for our annual 7-day camping trip with 60 school kids from 3rd to 5th grade. The kids were excited, tingling with anticipation of time in the woods— sleeping in tents serenaded at bedtime by the teachers (known as the Wandering Nostrils—mishearing of Minstrels), cooking outdoors, skipping stones in lakes, splashing in creeks, swinging in hammocks, getting dirty, eating S’mores and other glories of the outdoor life. But as we gathered in our cooking groups, one third-grade boy seemed visibly nervous. Talking to him alone after our meeting, he confessed, “I’ve never slept away from home before.”

So my wife and I talked to his folks and quickly agreed for a trial night away from home—at our house. We prepared ourselves to receive him, cooking a favorite meal, getting out some favorite board games and bedtime books, letting him know we would take him home anytime he wanted to and assuring him that he was but a phone call away. I remember a couple of tenuous moments, but he got through them, passed his “initiation” and went on to the camping trip more confident and prepared. I remember sitting next to him on the bus ride home and as we came around the turn in Route 80 where the Golden Gate Bridge is first visible, he turned to me and said, “Now there is a beautiful sight.” He was proud that he had made it through the whole camping trip, but also quite happy to be going home.

This all happened over 30 years ago and I hadn’t thought of it for at least 25 of them until a retired school colleague told me he met this boy at some school Conference, now a fully grown man over 40- years old. In the course of conversation, the question came up, “Who was your favorite teacher from back then?” and without a moment’s hesitation, he replied “Karen and Doug.” “Because you liked art and music?” “Well, I did, but that’s not why. It’s because I spent my first night ever away from home in their house.” And that’s when this forgotten story came back to me.

I am still struggling to adjust to our culture of fear and litigation and I’m not doing so well with it. Today, I would probably have his parents sign a waiver absolving us of all mental damage, check with all my Insurance companies, make sure I didn’t hug him goodnight for fear of child abuse, sign a statement that to the best of my knowledge, no food prepared in my house had touched a peanut just in case he was allergic. Perhaps I would suggest his parents hire an “Attachment Therapist” to help him deal with his issue at big bucks per hour. Or recommend that his doctor give him some anti-anxiety pills. Or maybe I’d go the “Tough Love” route and tell him “If you can’t handle a night away, you can’t go on the trip.” Or go the consensus route and cancel the whole trip: “If even one child is uncomfortable, then none of us should go.”

Instead, my wife and I simply invited him into our home. It worked. And some 30 years ago, he still remembered it. Had my colleague not met him, I never would have known it. Nor did I need to know it. Most of what people remember of extraordinary kindness was just ordinary common sense or decency. But we seem to be losing it. We are so tangled in our fear, so lost in the self-help culture, so crazed with official solutions to simple human problems, that we have lost our bearings. We don’t trust our intuition to do the most obvious, the simplest, the most humanly decent thing. We have become cold, calculating, covering our butts instead of opening our hearts. It is the shame of our age that decent people are doing indecent things driven by fear instead of led by love.

What will our children remember 30 years from now? “I remember this teacher was going to invite me for an overnight, but he consulted his lawyer and was advised against it.”

I ask again. What will our children remember 30 years from now? 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Thing of Beauty

I recently saw the French film “Le Havre” a fine story of people helping people for no other reason than to help. About midway through the film, it struck me that with one exception (the detective), every single person in the film was physically unattractive. And I had to admit that it made it just a tad more difficult to watch. It might have been my expectation forged by decades of Hollywood’s glamour girls and handsome guys, but I also considered that Hollywood’s standard exists simply because beauty is attractive. Not exactly a profound thought, but one I had been schooled to reject and now had to confront as truth— we like seeing attractive people.

As soon as I say that, I know that physical attraction is just one facet of a whole person and one easy to bypass when you know a person. Even in the Hollywood of yore, actors could make it without great looks—think Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford sharing the screen with Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor. Ultimately, we care more about substance than surface. But in the world of packaging and people, an attractive book or album cover does indeed attract and when surface and substance are married, we feel lifted slightly higher into an exalted realm. And that’s why we expect to be in the company of people mostly better-looking than us when we pay our ten dollars at the movies.

Soon after “Le Havre,” I saw “My Week with Marilyn” and that was a good companion piece, a study of beauty gone rampant, people so entranced with the mythos of Marilyn’s beauty that upright English citizens of the Empire felt their stiff-upper lips go slack when she passed on the street and gave up any pretense of propriety, simply dropped everything and rushed over bewitched by her blonde top and bouncing bottom. And also a good meditation on a frail human being who was the prisoner of her own beauty, exhausted by the work of trying to live up to the image of Marilyn Monroe at the expense of the vulnerable, aching-for-love person inside. But alongside your desire to know that person (and here I’m speaking as a straight man), you couldn’t help but be bewitched along with the rest of the people who stopped and stared when she passed by. When she was in the picture, she trumped everything and every one around her.

Though sometimes loathe to admit it in the face of the damage it does to women in particular trying to live up to a pre-fabricated image, we would do well to say out loud that beauty attracts. For those who have it (and here I am not speaking from personal experience!), it is a gift and a curse. Most would probably not willingly trade it, but it can cover up or cover over or confuse the greater character inside the package. We know that those without it (think Gandhi and Mother Teresa) can achieve extraordinary things and that those with it can be extraordinarily superficial and destructive. And it also is important to note that beauty in people is often entirely subjective, both personally and culturally. Big-bottomed women are desperately dieting in the U.S. while they are the standard of sexiness in Ghana. Years ago in India, a pot-bellied man was a symbol of wealth and power. And even in the U.S., Marilyn Monroe’s 1950’s slightly-plump figure would have disqualified her to be a 1980’s super-model.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” wrote Keats, but when it comes to the human body, it’s more like 50 or 60 years. Hard to imagine Marilyn as an 80-year old doing films. So while we preen and fuss, reject or support a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry, begin from the fact of physical beauty as nature’s delight with aesthetic display, let’s also pay attention to the inner beauty that doesn’t corrode with time. And remember, as the couple in “Le Havre” showed us, that love creates beauty and that, as Marilyn showed us, beauty can repulse genuine love.

More to say, but I have an appointment with my hair-transplant doctor.