Thursday, April 28, 2011

Heaven and Hell

Every two weeks for the past 21 years, I meet with a group of men. We began spawned by the fervor of the “men’s movement” in 1990 and have remained steadfast beyond the rise and fall of cultural fashion. Sometimes we have a given topic, sometimes the dramas of eight lives is topic enough. But we always begin with a check-in and no matter the details, mine can usually be summarized as “Heaven and hell, gentlemen. Heaven and hell.” It may lean toward one side or another, but even in the shining glory of a fortnight filled with accomplishment, glory, revelation or sheer pleasure, the dark shadow of hell lurks in the background. And vice-versa—though its light is obscured in my tangled, hung-up mind or aching heart, heaven’s dawn is just a few bird-songs away.

A couple of days ago, it was hell’s turn to visit. A conversation that left me feeling unknown, unseen and unwanted in a community that I thought was home (I’ll keep the contents of that laundry tucked away in the closet here) grabbed me by the throat and threw me down. I went home and had to write out the words for the next day’s jazz piece (work doesn’t care how you feel—onward, soldier!) and it seemed like they were written for me: “Every mornin’ finds me moanin’, ‘Cause of all the trouble I’ve seen. Life’s a losin’ gamble to me. Cares and woes have got me moanin’. Every evenin’ finds me moanin’. I’m alone and singin’ the blues. I’m so tired of payin’ these dues. Everybody knows I’m moanin’”… Yeah! Nothing like a little blues to remind you that you’re not alone when you sing them and work it out with a few well-chosen flatted fifths.

After that, I played Bach, who remains a constant source of consolation. With his dazzling mathematical configurations, he’s known as a composer of the intellect. But it turns out that playing through the labyrinth of his complex thought softens the jagged edges of the heart. There is passion and soul hidden in the figured patterns of those notes, not the hand-wrenching sobs and passionate displays of Chopin, but a more understated emotion that surprises you when you discover it. Friends, next time Mr. Blues is pullin’ you down, play through a Partita and see what happens. Or at least listen to the Mass in B Minor.

The next day began with dark clouds again and not a silver lining in sight until I practiced Philippine pole-dancing (no, not that kind!), played jazz with 8th graders and sang with 5-year olds. Then three boxes arrived and there were the books my colleague Sofia Lopez-Ibor and I had waited for after almost two years of steady, difficult and detailed work. On her part, that is. She is the author of Blue Is the Sea: Music, Dance and Visual Arts—I am the mere publisher, through my company Pentatonic Press, as well as friend who supported and occasionally advised throughout the process. I patiently waited for her to arrive at school before tearing open the boxes and seeing the marvel of work captured between two covers, in full color prints on glossy paper. The light of heaven glowed on each page. Things were looking up.

Then on to the Jewish Home for the Aged and a luncheon for all residents with birthdays in April—on the exact day of my mother’s 90th birthday! To borrow her favorite expression these days: “Imagine that!” We ate a delicious mushroom soup with garlic bread and at one point she blurted out, “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had!” St. Peter's hand was firmly on the doorknob.

Back I rushed to school to continue rehearsing for next week’s Spring Concert—and in case you’re wondering, the second graders are now almost ready—and on to a parent-staff meeting where the 17 kids going to Salzburg with James, Sofia and myself this summer performed their dazzling body percussion routine to open the proceedings. By now, trumpets were sounding and angels playing harps—with a jazz inflection.

But my day wasn’t over yet. As I was packing up to leave school, a four-year old girl came with her mother into the music room. Her mom said, “She has something she’s been wanting to tell you since you came back to school from your travels.” And the girl said, “Welcome back, Doug.” After they picked me up sobbing from the floor, I gave her a hug and went on to a delightful and delicious dinner alone at Little Nepal restaurant on Cortland and then on to…the men’s group. I came prepared to open yet another difficult conversation about belonging and vulnerability and I did and felt over two decades of caring for each other flood the room. It buoyed me up, made me feel welcome and isn’t that all any of us want? To be in the club, invited to the party, to feel like we belong? But not at the expense of who we are—you can’t join the club that makes you leave parts of you outside without doing damage. And you can’t stand outside the door, alone with your whole self, without a different kind of damage. To find where we belong and to whom—that’s a life’s work.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I Hate David Sedaris

Title got your attention? I went to hear David Sedaris read tonight from his various books and the guy is simply wonderful. Or at least his writing is—I’ll have to reserve judgement on him until we hang out some together. And if I had been patient enough to wait on line to get him to sign books and had the opportunity to tell him my snail joke, I’m sure he would be calling me to find out when we can meet again. Meanwhile, he is so damn funny while also hitting that serious and poignant universal bone that everyone can relate to. My father wasn’t quite as bad as his— “Big deal! Your book is number 1 on the New York Times Best-sellers List. But it ain’t number one in the Wall St. Journal!”—but he was of the style that said, “Why did you get that A-?!” when all the other grade were A. (Not something that actually happened very often—all A’s, that is.) His stories about waiting in airports or staying in hotels are stories I could have been writing on this Blog instead of all this Pie-in-the Sky visions of universal peace and brotherhood through music. That is, I could have written them if I was David Sedaris.

So though I loved the evening, it left me with the bitter taste of envy. The lines to buy his books were out the doors while I found that Stats part of this Blog and discovered that 4 people had read one of my entries! (But if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the four, so THANK YOU! I love you and promise to play piano for you at the Old Age Home, your wedding, a neighborhood party or to cure your insomnia—Bach’s Goldberg Variations are just the ticket for the latter.) Like any passion, I write just to free up space in my head and it doesn't matter if anyone reads it—witness some 60 unread articles sitting in some distant dusty file on my computer. But it sure feels good to connect with a reader and what writer would not be thrilled to have a line out the door?

So I tempered the sharp edge of envy with some of the marvelous rationalizations the human mind is so expert at. Well, David, you may be a fantastic writer enjoying wild success, but you didn’t get to play Bulgarian bagpipe with middle schoolers on xylophones, fiddles and high-pitched recorders today, did you? You didn’t sit on a piano bench next to four-year old Demarcus impeccably dressed in his Easter suit visiting his Grandma at the Jewish Home (huh?) and jam for 30 minutes straight—first some black-key blues and then—much better—singing nursery rhymes in blues style without a pause, the young African-American genius calling out “It’s my turn” and making up his own songs when his repertoire ran dry. All of this with my Mom on the other side of him grinning ear-to-ear—“My, isn’t he talented!” and his parents filming like mad on their cell phones. Maybe it will turn up on Youtube and go viral.

And David, won’t you be jealous then!! But call me up anyway and I’ll tell you the snail joke.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Simple Pleasures

“Well, the sky is high and the ocean is deep, but we can’t treat the planet like a garbage heap!” So opens my Earth Day Rap and it got a lot of airplay today on Earth Day at The San Francisco School. (A full version with instrumental accompaniment and a photo of me “rappin’” with Bobby McFerrin is in my book “Now’s the Time: Teaching Jazz to All Ages.”) Today I rode my bike the five miles up and down hills to the school and passed a typical Friday morning. The 6th graders played a dynamic piece from Argentina, the 8th graders played some jazz from Swing Band style to Be-bop to Latin with such ease and finesse, both preparing for a concert in two weeks (local folks, mark your calendars for May 4th—details to follow). Then five-year olds passed beanbags to a Ghanaian song, balanced them on different body parts while walking around the room, figured out how to stack fists while singing “One Potato, Two Potato.” Such simple pleasures. Had the electricity gone out, all would have been exactly the same, depending on nothing more or less than bodies, voices, acoustic instruments made from wood, metal, string.

In the afternoon, the elementary school walked to a playground about a mile away and spent some time playing on the playground. There are few things more heartwarming and entertaining than watching kids play on the playground. Perhaps playing in the woods or by a river or on the beach or in a field trumps the playground, which is but a synthetic version of those natural environments. But still pretty great to have it all condensed in an urban park. (And if your neighborhood is lacking one, contact KaBoom! where my daughter works and organize for them to build one!). The kids were climbing, swinging, balancing, jumping, crawling, doing precisely what kids need to do and trusting their bodies to choose which activity it needed at the moment and for how long. We really are born with an interior guidance that we can learn to trust to lead us to the next thing we need to learn and practice. Excessive adult-organized structure, constant electronic entertainment, lack of facilities, short-circuits all that and we suffer the consequences. (Amidst the merriment and carnival-like romp of the kids on the playground, a mother was pushing her babies on the swing while checking her text-messages. Aargh!!)

After the playground time, we gathered to do a public rendition of “The Earth Day Rap” with different groups coming into the center to show their motions. We then set to work on the afternoon project, pulling invasive mallow weeds. The kids were in heaven, pulling up these large (some bigger than them!) weeds, calling for help and teamwork for the really big ones and comparing the root size, getting their feet dirty and their hands sweaty. Me, too. Great fun to be in the midst of a clump of weeds responding to the kids’ calls, working side-by-side with a 9-year old with a great work rhythm and thinking, “This is the kind of work adults and children have done side by side for millennium (I’m betraying my American urban experience here—of course, many still do) and there’s something so satisfying, so engaging, so communal, so right about the feeling. Simple pleasures.

My afternoon ended with a visit to my Mom, mostly me playing piano for her, first while she read a magazine and then, while she just leaned back in her wheelchair, closed her eyes and waved her hand to the music with such a beatific look on her face. Who would have imagined those typically boring, sometimes painful and occasionally fun piano lessons with Mrs. Lutz down the street would have helped lead me to a moment like this? Of all the pleasures of the day, there is nothing more satisfying than giving my mother a couple of hours of soothing music that transports her to some private paradise.

A good way to spend Earth Day—playing, working, dancing, biking, making music, side by side with people from 5 to 95 years old. Simple pleasures. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Happy in Canada

It is snowing in Edmonton. In mid-April. I’m walking by the old Macdonald Hotel overlooking the river and am seized by a bone-deep happiness. In spite of (or maybe because of) a Spring snow in Canada, I am unaccountably, unabashedly, unreservedly happy. As if I’m precisely the person I was meant to be standing in precisely the spot I was meant to stand looking at the glass pyramid across the way as if it was beyond any heaven I ever dreamed of. Or rather, precisely the heaven I’ve always dreamed of, as if returning to the Home of all homes. We plan and hope for happiness, but this is how it comes— unexpectedly, surprisingly, on the wings of snow flurries in April.

I have been in Edmonton before and maybe it’s because it was one of the first places I traveled to teach an Orff workshop in the mid-80’s that there’s some buried memory of that freshness and freedom of being out in the world sharing what I loved with people happy to receive it. I can feel the years drop off, taste that feeling in the air, touch the joy of being footloose, free to both follow my fancy and offer it to the world.

Many years before, Canada was the first “foreign” country I ever visited. In the summer of 1963, my father, mother, sister and I (and our French poodle Impy) set off in a car to drive from New Jersey to the city of Toronto to combine vacation with my father’s business. We drove north through New York State, through the Catskills and beyond on winding, wooded roads.  I remember a visit to the Corning Glass Factory, watching the movie Niagara (Joseph Cotton, Marilyn Monroe) one night in a small motel and then going on to the actual Niagara Falls the next day, of which I mostly remember Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and a boat ride on the Maid of the Mist.

Then we arrived in Toronto and met the McNabb family who hosted our visit. While my father attended to work, the rest of us took a trip to the Casa Loma, the former estate of Sir Henry Pellatt, a prominent Toronto financier, industrialist and military man. (In the late 1920’s, there was a house band there called Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra that played hot jazz for dancing.) My mother was driving behind our host’s car and worried that she might lose sight of the car, asked me to memorize the license plate number. For some mysterious reason that some neuroscientist or gypsy fortuneteller might someday illuminate, I still remember that number to this day. B23-882. Ask me next time you see me.

I also remember taking a walk in a Botanical Garden and holding hands with a girl close to my age named Lizzie. At 12 years old, I believe this was my case of puppy love. (Lizzie, if you’re out there, let’s get back in touch!) Four years later, I went to Montreal with my Aunt Flo to Expo 67 and what with the French language and teenager’s independence, this was even more exciting. I sometimes split up from my Aunt and went off to surreptitiously smoke a few cigarettes, think my philosophically emerging 16-year-old thoughts and wonder if Lizzie was there. (She wasn’t.)

Some 35 years later, I was back in Montreal teaching a workshop and went to the Expo site. Pigeons roosted in Calder’s sculpture, but Habitat was still there and it was inhabited. The American Pavilion biosphere was now the site of a museum, the French pavilion a casino. The paths once filled with bustling crowds, still bright-eyed about the promised wonders of the future, were now dotted with occasional bikers, roller bladders, tourists like me, taking a stroll through the park. Red-winged blackbirds sang where once crowds hummed. I marveled, as we often do back in places we once visited, about all the years that had passed, all that had happened in the world, in my life, all the Expo predictions that never came true, all of them that did, all my own predictions that hadn’t come true and all that surpassed my wildest expectations. 

And if I remember correctly, I believe I was happy. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Me and Icarus

Dear Reader,

Guess where I am? Hint: I enter, kick off my shoes, take off my jacket, set down my backpack filled with work. Afterwards, I browse in a bookstore, see a fabulous Folk Art Exhibit, sit down with a cup of coffee and look out the window at the swirling fog, enjoy the murmur of folks chatting. Perhaps I’ll see a movie later. You might be thinking:

"A foot-massage in San Francisco Chinatown, stroll down to City Light’s bookstore in North Beach, drop into a hip art gallery, then settle down at CafĂ© Trieste with a triple expresso with a newspaper and see what’s playing at Embarcadero Cinema." Wouldn’t that be a lovely evening!

Instead, I’m back at SF Airport (read through the list again) and yes, there is a fabulous Folk Art Exhibit at the United Terminal called Second Chances. And maybe there will be a movie on the plane. I’m en route to Edmonton for a one-day Orff festival, where I have been chosen to judge and work with the performing groups. Something I’ve never done before and so when invited, I thought, “Hey! Why not?” Always up for adventure. Just looked at the weather there—33 degrees! Hmm. Not quite ready for that!

Yesterday was the third in my series of workshops Education, Arts, Anthropology and Neuroscience, this one based on Steven Mithen’s fascinating book “The Singing Neanderthals,” where he makes a convincing case that music was—and is—essential to our survival. So I combined the theme with jazz, a music that grew from a culture that indeed survived a few centuries of brutality, in no small part because of the power of music. We sang through the songs that lifted people up when everything conspired to beat them down, revealed the hidden messages and ingenious strategies for keeping their Spirits alive, finding ways to drum without drums and dance without crossing their feet. And then when we finally played some jazz blues, the people understood who had paid their dues and the music communicated even deeper and soared yet higher.

On of the highlights of the workshop was an alumni family dropping in. Maddie, one of the daughters, was in the 5th grade group that played my arrangement of The Cookie Jar game back in 1998 when—and I'm not making this up—Milt Jackson came to my school and spent a morning playing for and with the kids. (If you don’t know who Milt Jackson is, first "Shame on you!" and then go look him up and be suitably impressed). I have a video of that momentous occasion that I often show in workshops and so have watched a permanently 10-year-old Maddie playing an impressive blues solo on the xylophone. Now she’s living in San Francisco as a young woman, some 13 years out of practice on the Orff instruments, but ready and willing to try it again. So she got to relive her moment of glory (minus Milt Jackson’s appreciation) to play another solo. She still sounded good—as did her sister, mother and father.

But the return engagement of the blues solo was nothing compared to playing the original Cookie Jar game with eight people in the class. This just happens to be a game I excel in and indeed, in my 36 years at The San Francisco School, I have only been beaten once. (Michael Canaveral, if you’re out there reading this, I’m ready for a re-match!) Michael beat me when he was in 4th grade (he’s now 30) in front of 100 children who whooped and hollered like the Giants had won the World Series—times ten! So I set off playing with supreme confidence and still was relaxed when it came down to just Maddie and myself.

Oh, dear brethren, how far we fall when hubris overcomes us. I was flying high, like Icarus on his waxen wings: “Who me?” asked Maddie, “Yes you!” I replied, “Couldn’t be!” she continued,  “Then we…” WE??!!! (for non-Cookie Jar players, the correct rejoinder is “Then who?) A moment of stunned silence—did I really just say that?—and then Maddie’s ear-to-ear grin. So I fell to earth in shame and humiliation and Maddie Katz became the second person ever to beat me in the Cookie Jar.

Well, I’m proud to report that the depth of my Fall took a back seat to the exultation of her victory. Like Michael, when times are dark and despair is in the air, Maddie will always have this comforting thought, “I beat Doug in the Cookie Jar. “ I’m happy for her. Really.

Still though, I’m ready for a future Maddie/ Michael rematch. 

Any time. 

Any place.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Donna Reed Legacy

The tears trickled out, the laughter came and it was a beautiful memorial service for father-in-law Ted Shultz. It was held at the Ann Arbor Club on a beautiful sunny day in a lovely non-denominational room tastefully decorated with Ted’s quilt hanging on a screen, his large smiling photo in the window, a few tastefully placed flowers and the warmth of some 140 people who turned up to pay their respects. They entered the room via a receiving line, stopping to look at the three collages of photos we arranged the night before while I played Bach on the piano.

Even a Memorial Service these days begins with the cell phone announcement and then the Chaplain said some poignant words about the full arc of a live well-lived to a ripe old age (86) and hence, “this service as celebration. At the same time, we would have wished for a few more years and that brings a loss and sadness, a feeling of empty space never to be filled again in quite the same way.” Well-spoken—all truth comes in pairs and I continued the theme, saying a few words about death as both departure and homecoming and how song was needed for both. The welcoming angels needed help from us down here to join in their chorus and we who are left behind also need to sing to bring ourselves some comfort. Giving people permission to leave behind whatever insecurities their music teachers implanted in them, I invited them to sing heartily and with full voice and heart—and as we launched into “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” they did.

Next came some well-chosen scriptures from the Old and New Testament and Buddhist writings chosen by my mother-in-law, Pam. I was particularly taken by the reading of 1 Corinthians, 13. Poetic, profound and if even half the people who profess to be Christians lived up to a fraction of its message, our world would be transformed. “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” There was a lot of love in that room for Ted and Pam and we were just getting warmed up.

Next came a short talk by the Chaplain, a little story about each person writing a list of everyone who had mattered to them in their life, who had buoyed them up and sent them  forward, who had garnered their faith, increased their hope and surrounded them with their love. You take that list to the gates of heaven and the gatekeeper reminds you that you must leave everything behind. You protest, he takes the list, reads it and smiles: “You don’t need this anymore. They’re all here to greet you.” Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. It’s a lovely image and since we don’t know ahead of time, why not imagine the best?

The highlight of the ceremony was the family remembrances. My wife Karen and her brothers and two of her childhood neighbors painted the picture of the idyllic American childhood they experienced in the town of Plymouth, Michigan. Neighbors who all knew each other gathered for evening martinis and Saturday barbecues, had snowball or crab-apple fights with the kids. Dads went to work at Ford and came home with a paycheck and the news of the day shared around the dinner table, served up by the reliable Moms who mostly stayed home with the kids (though Karen’s Mom eventually went back to school, got a degree and taught Special Education). Summer was trips to nearby lakes or far-away mountains for hiking and fishing, Saturday mornings were accompanied by show tune soundtracks on the record players. There were baseball games, piano lessons, walking to and from school with teachers that both kids and parents respected. It was Donna (and Alex) Reed, Ward and June Cleaver, Ozzie and Harriet in the flesh! And with Ted’s children and those neighborhood kids now in their 50’s and 60’s, you could feel how much it all still meant to them as they re-lived it in their memories.

It’s tempting, of course, to romanticize it all and wax nostalgic, to skip over the fact that during part of that time, the Detroit riots were raging just 30 minutes down the road, the folks who couldn’t buy houses in Plymouth and live out that American dream expressing their rage. It’s easy to forget what prices men paid to conform to the 50’s male, what feelings were buried under cocktails never to be spoken out loud, easy to leave out of the picture how many “happy housewives” felt like prisoners in their homes. And while we remember a certain feeling of solidity and security and optimism, everyone buoyed up by the promise of the technological future with its marvelous labor-saving devices, let us not forget the “duck ‘n’ cover” exercises. (Karen tells a hilarious story of how distraught she was because she was told that families had to share their Fallout shelters and she would have to be with a boy she didn’t like. She was much more worried about that than nuclear attack!)

But the point here is not to try to recapture what was a particular mythology from a particular time—both impossible and undesirable— but to remember the solid values that are the same for any community, whether it be a few blocks in Harlem, a Midwest farming town or a West African village. Know your neighbors. Eat meals together and talk. Get out in the woods. Sit on the stoop and talk to passer-bys. Sing and dance together. Let the children play—and sometimes play with them.

Back to Ted Shultz. What struck me about the talks from family and friends where all the quirks of character that set Ted apart from his neighbor. His inexplicable habit of burning incense while listening to show tunes. his particular style of casting when fly-fishing, a spontaneous dance he did once at a party, the way he greeted his grandchildren with a little sound and poking gesture. While the world is doing its best to mold us into predictable and replicable obedient citizens, what really matters at the end of the day are the ways in which we stand out. People sitting in that room who didn’t know Ted well felt like they did by the end of the service and people who knew him felt the fuller pain of the loss of his unique way of being in this world. That’s what made the service so beautiful and right.

We finished an hour later with a few choruses of Amazing Grace. I suggested that people put their hands on the back of their neighbors while they sing, to feel the vibration of their voices. This is what I used to do with my Dad in his last days, just put my hand there while he talked to savor the tingling in my fingers that his voice made. I suggested that while we are all still here, let us savor that living vibration and use our voices to set the world vibrating, each in our own way. After some soulful singing, the Chaplain gave the Benediction and I started my medley of show tunes on the piano with “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” while the room broke into appreciative murmurs, heartfelt hugs—and of course, the tinkle of silverware as the food came out. Two hours later, the crowd had dwindled down to a single circle of family, extended family and close friends. The stories just kept flowing and the laughter and the occasional tear.

It was a fine way to say goodbye. We’ll miss you, Ted.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tears and Laughter

Back to ye old airport, my second home, and half-expecting the security people to greet me by name. Using our miles (and of course, charged double miles just because), we managed to get last-minute tickets to Michigan, but first had to go through Washington D.C. just to take the scenic route. With a longer layover, we could have had daughter Kerala come meet us at the airport for a Starbucks date. Ironically, our plane was going on Buenos Aires, home of Talia, the juniah sistah (as they called her in Ghana). Thought about writing a note and asking the passenger who discovered it to deliver it.

Settled into Hawthorne Suites in Ann Arbor and awoke to a surprising breakfast with real plates and glasses and no Styrofoam. Sunny outside, but Spring has still not arrived. The headline in the paper is “Texas considering new law for 85 miles an hour speed limit.” Way to go, Texas!! Burn that fossil fuel, baby!! Hold on to that adolescent version of freedom—“I can do whatever I want and ain’t no one gonna stop me!”

Today is a day of details—tape the photos to foam-core, check on the flowers, go to the Ann Arbor City Club to figure out how to arrange the chairs for my father-in-law’s memorial service. The cousins and family friends are arriving from all corners of the country to pay their respects and say their farewells collectively. It is at once a fun reunion, the celebratory side of departure as all the people who shared in Ted’s life come together to enjoy each other’s company and hopefully soon to be a time of shared grief as well. God in any language loves both tears and laughter. In New Orleans, they make space for both formally, with the old hymns bringing forth the salty waters and the infectious jazz rhythms bubbling up some joyous festivity. My job in tomorrow’s service is to invite both, through a few well-chosen songs and words.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, an alum student all of 15 years old lies in a coma after a snowboarding accident, one of our 8th graders on the school Spanish trip to Nicaragua had an emergency appendicitis operation and a friend in Finland begins chemotherapy. Despite the best efforts of our Risk Committees, life remains a dangerous and precarious proposition and the best way I have found to cope is to live more fully, with more awareness, more gratitude, more vigor and more love. Failing every day, but doing my best to keep the senses alert, mind active and heart open. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Godzilla Makes Frankenstein

Testing in schools has become like the weather—everyone complains, but no one does anything about it. Really, I have not met one single teacher who looks me in the eye and says, “I think the testing that we’re doing at schools is just the right thing to do. The kids love it, it makes me a better teacher and the results are clear—our kids are smarter, more accomplished, more knowledgable and happier.” And yet, we continue to do it. Why?

Vacationing in Florida, my 15-year old niece was on the beach and pulled out a book. There are few things more pleasurable than lying on a beach towel serenaded by the gentle lull of the waves and immersed in a book. I hoped to see “Catcher in the Rye” or “Catch 22” or “A Tale of Two Cities” or some such great read. Instead it’s a big fat book titled: “ACT: Strategies, Practice and Review Kaplan 2011” In Wisconsin where she lives, the ACT is the equivalent of the SAT and so at 15, with college already on her mind, she’s getting herself ready. I asked her to give me a question or two, thinking it might be fun as a kind of quiz show game. Once I started hearing the kinds of things they were asking, it struck me like a two-by-four on the head how utterly insane this testing atmosphere is, a mutant gene gone rampant, some educational Godzilla stomping through the schools and wreaking havoc. Rather than get upset in a general way about the philosophical faux-pas of mistaking testing for understanding or knowledge, I decided to meet the beast head-on and find out precisely what it’s thinking. And so I read this introduction:

"The ACT is an opportunity, not a barrier. In fact, you should be grateful that you have to take it. Really. Because a strong ACT score is one credential that doesn’t depend on things you can’t control. It doesn’t depend on how good or bad your high school is. It doesn’t depend on how many academic luminaries you know, or how rich and famous your family is, or whether any of your teachers are gullible enough to swear in a letter of recommendation that you’re the greatest scientific mind since Isaac Newton. No, your ACT score depends on only you. ."

Hmm. They have a point there. Indeed, one of the positive aspects of the SAT’s was that they were intended to help level the playing field, give any smart kid a leg up regardless of family background, schools attended, etc. It’s the old American bootstrap story—rags to riches, underprivileged kid makes good. And there are indeed people who have lived that story from all walks of life.

But one problem with the story is the illusion of the equal playing field, the kid who’s born on third base and thinks he hit a triple next to the kid who can’t afford a bat. Thousands (millions?) of affluent families are spending money for SAT tutorial-training so their kid can learn how to take the test and thus, beat out their neighbor. The Kaplan book only costs $20, but if you’re in a poor neighborhood with a school that was punished for its test scores and had even more money taken away from its meager resources, are you prepared to read the Kaplan book? Does the ACT score really “depend on only you?” Might a bad high school actually be a factor? Just wondering.

But as a teacher, I have even more objections. Take this next section, quoted verbatim:

  1. Learn the test. You’ll learn how to get extra points by guessing.
I get how that game works. Even a game show penalizes you for guessing wrong (think Jeopardy), but here it is entirely possible that the stars lined up and your radar was high that day and you guessed your way to a high score. Well, good for you! But bad for education. It means that such tests are miserable indicators of understanding. And it gets worse.

2.  You’ll learn “unofficial” ways of getting right answers fast. On the ACT, nobody cares how you decide which choice to select. The only thing that matters is picking the right answer.

Can I highlight certain things here?

“Right answers fast…”
“ Nobody cares how you decide which choice…”
“ The only thing that matters is picking the right answer.”
“The ONLY thing that matters.
“RIGHT answer.

Do you get the picture? While teachers are trying to teach students time-honored values of slow, methodical work with time for in-depth reflection, speed is the essential skill in the testing game. While a good teacher is working to get students to generate their own questions and consider multiple answers, look at all the shades of grey, the test game is all about black and white, only wants “the right answer”—whatever that is. Indeed, as a student, I did okay on such tests, but often could see other “right answers” and with a chance for conversation, could have defended my choices. But “nobody cared” to have the conversation with me, because the “only thing that mattered is picking the right answer.” That’s a fun game for TV game shows, but has absolutely nothing to do with the enterprise of education.

And finally, “nobody cares how you decide.” But isn’t that meta-cognition the most interesting thing about education? If we are serious about developing thinking human beings, we better be interested in their thought processes. As any half-way awake teacher knows, asking a child how they figured something out, composed a piece, wrote a poem, drew a picture, is just about the most fascinating part of our job.  I have a thirty-minute recorded interview with 5-year old Sam describing IN-DEPTH every step of arriving at his remarkable song “I’m a Little Cracker.” There is more intelligence in any ten sentences of his explanation than the entire history of SAT tests. But apparently nobody cares to know what Sam is thinking and they certainly are not impressed by a song about a cracker—they just want him to get the right answer fast and be done with it.

I’m all for playing games and love Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuits, but when the stakes are the future of our children, the culture and perhaps the species, we better change the rules. Learning the SAT/ACT game will do nothing to prepare kids for work in corporations selling products that don’t yet exist, tell them absolutely nothing about how to resolve territorial squabbles without unleashing nuclear arsenals and certainly prepare them for zero intelligence in dealing with climate change. In this time of rapid change and cataclysmic consequences if we fail to meet the challenges set before us, we need more than ever before intelligence, imagination, caring, compassion, creativity, group work and deep understanding. Yet never have we done so little to prepare children for the kind of thinking and feeling the future demands—except for those few inspired schools struggling to stay alive and those inspired teachers trying to duck under that Godzilla swings of testing and keep their job—and their passion—alive.

In the ultimate horror movie—Godzilla Makes Frankenstein—we are creating a generation of test-taking zombies who will grow up to be the kind of narrow thinkers that have made my life so miserable in Immigration Departments, Government Agencies and other horrors of bureaucracies, whose robotic workers are taught not to care and can see nothing beyond the right answer on the test—fast. Not to blame the children here—and kudos to those who resist and survive, though often at great cost. It is we, the adults, who are supposed to be in charge and every day that goes by with passive acceptance of it all is a strike against the future.

It’s time to bring Godzilla down. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Rhythm Is It

Sometimes I wake up early in the morning, take a shuttle to the airport, stand in the security line, sit at the gate, board a plane and emerge 11 hours later. If I’m lucky, my ride is there waiting for me and off we go to the hotel to get settled in. I might wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning new-time, read or write, sleep a bit more and then go off to teach a six hour workshop to adults. Afterwards, I go out to dinner with some of the folks and invariably, they say, “You must be exhausted!” And I reply, “This is nothing compared to one day of teaching at The San Francisco School!”

So I’m back in the workday world at The SF School and after ten weeks without a single Ibuprofen, I’m popping them again like daily vitamins. Each hour in the day has a name and face to it, the 3-year old class demanding something different than the 8th grade, all-elementary singing time, carpool or staff-meeting. When 3 o’clock hits, I’m already yawning and when I finally approach home, it is with that comatose feeling that has me itching for the couch and the nightly Seinfeld re-run. And each day also has its name and character, like a piece of music heading for the climatic release of Friday afternoon. And then each month as well, heading for the final chords of June.

The musical metaphor is apt because it’s all about finding the right rhythm, getting into the groove of a particular schedule so that it energizes rather than depletes. I hit school running and though so happy to see the kids again with their warm reception (in marked contrast to the adults!), I find myself in some nether-zone, “neither here nor there” as Bill Bryson would say. Of course, it doesn’t help that I had a dental emergency that sent me twice to the dentist (turned out to be a simple, but painful cavity) and my father-in-law’s somewhat sudden passing trumps all business-as-usual, as well it should. Just as I’m trying to feel the rhythm again, I’m off to Michigan next week for the Memorial Service.

Traveling and teaching has its own rhythm and in some ways, it has suited me better, found me more effortlessly happy at the end of the day, less tangled in the knots of things to be done and relationships to be attended to. It makes me wonder, as all my colleagues are retiring around me like some Agatha Christie story (“and then there were five”), whether my time at school is nearing its end after 36 years. Not only in terms of my own energy, but from the kids’ point of view as well. They are so kind to me, showing their sincere enthusiasm for our time together, but still, the number one rule of relationship is “Show up.” This middle semester time off is the most difficult, getting into a groove with each class from September to January and then leaving—and then showing up again in April! It’s weird. Not to mention the added pressure of “three weeks until the Spring Concert!”

Well, not the most fascinating story for a Blog-reader, listening to me wonder about such things and even dare to complain about an arrangement many people would give their eye-tooth for (if you do, I could use it! Talk to my dentist). But the more philosophical point is the importance of rhythm in our lives. It’s not about being more or less busy any more than music is judged by lots of notes or few notes—it’s how those notes are flowing in their dynamic rhythmic relationships, what contours the melodies take, how harmoniously the underlying chords are giving color and life. When we hit the groove and all the notes are lined up just right, we can accomplish remarkable things with less effort. When the rhythms and tones are wandering, searching for the right combinations, everything feels slightly off, difficult and exhausting. That’s where I am at the moment. I know no one’s sitting on the edge of their seat, but I’ll keep you posted anyway.


Monday, April 4, 2011


Yesterday I was in Washington DC biking with my newly pregnant daughter and her husband. Spring was in the air, announced yet more boldly by thousands of blossoming cherry trees. After the ride, I talked to my sister and she told me how one of her sons set his wedding date, another got a new job and her third was accepted to college. New lives, new beginnings. I checked e-mail and found out that the 2nd grade teacher at our school just had her baby. I found out from our upstairs neighbor that the house next door was being spruced up for sale, the dilapidated deck taken down and ivy-choked yard cleared.
New life. New Beginnings. 

This morning, I flew to San Francisco and stepped out into an unseasonably warm day, blue skies and not a wisp of fog in sight. Spring was bustin’ out all over. I walked into my house, anxious to drop my suitcases and get on my bike to visit my Mom and saw the blinking light on the answering machine. And that’s how I found out that my father-in-law Ted had died in his sleep last night.

It wasn’t a complete surprise. As mentioned in my “Keep Moving” entry, his health had taken a turn for the worse some ten days back and Hospice had come on the scene. A meeting with doctors and it looked like it could be up to six months before he left us. But Ted gave his blessing for everyone to go on to Florida and the daily phone calls found him mostly upbeat and enjoying the attention of various visitors and his faithful dog Toto. When I talked to him, he told me that my voice hadn’t changed much in all these years—but I had lost more hair. Thanks, Ted. He talked of his hopes of getting up to the cottage in Northern Michigan in June, the place he went every summer since 1974 and in fact, was marked with a handmade sign that said “Ted’s Place.” It wasn’t the kind of conversation that led any of us to imagine that he would be gone four days later. But as everyone is quick to admit, perhaps better to leave now as he did then suffer the indignities of one failed body part after another. My mother-in-law was with him hours before he passed and he simply said, “I’m tired.” And after almost two years of struggling with less than full health, he was.

So rest in peace, Ted. We weren’t ever close in any kind of deep way. You loved to fish and cook bouillabaisse soup and I like neither. You enjoyed your evening cocktail and then some and I could barely finish half a beer. You voted Republican and I…well, I’ll leave that sentiment unsaid for now. I imagine you were perplexed by me and perhaps disappointed in your daughter’s choice (as fathers have been from time immemorial), but you were always cordial and generous in opening your home and taking us out to dinner. You were a good grandfather to my children and you always had kind words for my father, who you had met on several occasions. We had a brief period of playing golf and tennis together, once had a memorable evening with the kids at the local drive-in theater, both shared bad backs and once, before yours got worse, had a rowdy bonfire on the beach followed by a night swim. You seemed to genuinely appreciate it when I came to play piano last year at your Assisted Living place and though I felt bad I couldn’t remember the tune you requested at the time—My Blue Heaven—I did play it over the phone for you last November on your birthday.

So today after hearing the news, I put your photo on top of the piano and played it again. Somehow the words felt right:

“When whippoorwills call and evenin’ is nigh, I hurry to my blue heaven.
A turn to the right, there’s a little white light, will lead you to my blue heaven.
You’ll see a smiling face, a fireplace, a cozy room,
a little nest that’s nestled where the roses bloom…I’m happy in my blue Heaven.”

I hope you are, Ted. Rest in peace.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Vocation and Vacation

And so on a crisp cloudy day in Baltimore, I finish my last workshops of my nine-week working vacation. Walk out of the windowless forced-air convention-center room with the rhythms of our final drum piece echoing in my ears and step out into the world. I walk down to the Harbor waterfront, where I have been before on other travels, and walk to a park overlooking the city, taking in the brick buildings so rare in San Francisco, the boats in the shimmering water, the people out strolling looking for the approaching Spring, the splash of color from the blooming forsythias and pink cherries. Suddenly, I’m talking to my father, four years gone from this world and tell him what I’m seeing. This is one of my promises to loved ones who have passed, to be their eyes and ears reporting the colors and shapes we have down here on earth, telling them the news, living in the world on their behalf. I never really did travel much with my dad, one of the regrets of our complicated (aren’t they all?) relationship. He had a certain fear of the world and preferred to walk the small steps of a safe and comfortable routine. Part of my life has been to travel beyond the borders of his ambit. Ambit is an old word that describes the limit of one’s reach and ambition stems from the attempt to move beyond that. I’ve been accused of being ambitious and why not? What is that Browning line?
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?"

A good summary of my chosen life, constantly reaching beyond my limited grasp and likewise, a good maxim for the Orff approach to education. Indeed, calling it the Orff approach (not my phrase) is brilliant because it suggests we’re always approaching the horizon of mastery, but never reaching it. And that gives us something to do when we wake up in the morning.

Sitting in the park looking over Baltimore, overcome with gratitude for every minute of these last nine weeks where vacation and vocation have united. A new twist on the Robert Frost line from his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight…

And that has been true for me as well. Music, an avocation for many, is also my vocation. And sometimes my vacation. But now that’s over. In two days, I’ll be back at school in the same music room and walk the same halls that I have walked for 36 years, a different weight in my step (literally and figuratively!), carrying the actual stories of what I could only imagine way back then while working for the next miracle from the kids. It will be lovely to see them all again, but I’d be lying if I didn’t mention a mild resistance to the details of the workaday world—the intense schedule with little room to smell the roses, the meetings, the personalities and skewed relationships, the busy work, the meetings, the frustrations of compromised visions. Did I mention the meetings? The uniting of my vocation and vacation is a rarity and not wholly real as I gallop into town like the Lone Ranger, teach a class and go off into the distance waving “Hi ho Silver!!” (Okay, I recognize that only a few old-timers will relate to that image.) Now I have to tether the horse outside and stick around— for the after-school meeting.

But all of this makes me all the more grateful for the opportunity I’ve had these two months plus and this is as good a time as any to thank The San Francisco School for permitting such an arrangement, my colleagues Sofia and James for carrying on their stellar work with the kids, my wife Karen for keeping the home fires burning, all the course organizers for their hard work arranging the workshops, my travel agent Connie, the pilots who flew me safely, the hotels who gave me a bed to lie in, my daughters who helped set up this Web-log, my few faithful readers, and so on. It has been heavenly.

And speaking of Heaven (see Browning above), Frost finishes his poem like this:

Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Eating Our Young

In the jungle of Ecuador, I was taken by my Shuar Indian guide one night to a pond where a crocodile was tied up. He explained to me that this particular mother had started to eat its babies and that they tied her up until they were old enough to survive. Apparently, some reptiles have the counter-evolutionary habit of eating their own young. Well, what can you expect from a crocodile?

But speaking of counter-evolutionary trends, this is the latest—the highest order of species, homo sapiens, in the country that historically thinks of itself as a beacon of light in human history and culture, is now habitually eating its young.

I’m at a conference in Baltimore and listening to the usual table talk of how things are in each geographical area. In Baltimore, principals can decide where funds go and thus, will often choose to hire hall monitors and security guards instead of funding arts programs. This may seem like protecting the young from eating each other, but truth be told, that vicious Lord-of-the-Flies-syndrome happens precisely when adults abandon the young, when children sense that adults don’t care to give them what they need and just use them as fodder for some heartless test-score machine.

And what do the children need? Affection, affirmation, challenge, beauty, relevance, communion, connection, risk, love, all the things that good arts programs and good teaching in general might give them. Instead of committing to schools as a place to grow culture, as life-affirming places to create, nurture, cultivate the promise of human capability, they’ve become armed camps with children prisoners of Gestapo test-makers. And so security guards trumps arts teachers.

The stories continue. Back in Florida, a community college visual arts teacher has students in a required art history class and reports that the students come in terrified of art. Why? Because they’ve been given nothing in their schools and even less in the shopping malls, TV shows, radio stations and arsenal of electronic distraction. Whole generations coming up afraid of Giotto, Renoir and Picasso.

Of course, everywhere the reason is the same—budget cuts—and even the arts teachers themselves nod their heads and shrug their shoulders in a gesture of helplessness, as if art or education or medical care is understandably the first thing we should cut in hard times. And yet in Cuba, during their “Special Period” in the 90’s—the years of severe economic depression when Russia had collapsed and the US continued (and still does!) its cruel embargo—not a single penny was taken from education and health care. Not a penny. Why? Because of the commendable values that these things matter and should be the last to suffer, not the first.

We’ll traipse over to Afghanistan and beef up the Pentagon in a second to “defend the cause of freedom,” we’ll bail out the very same greedy corporate vultures who shamelessly collapsed our finances in a minute, let them fly to the meeting in their private jets, we’ll sit by while corporate CEO’s continue to triple their salary every year, we’ll build giant sports stadiums to indulge in our Roman-like spectacles, but when it comes time to support a school or fund an arts program, we passively accept “there’s just not enough money.”

How long can this go on? When will we stop eating our own young? And not just the young. The home where my mother lives will no longer accept residents because of cuts in Medical. So we’ll abandon the elders too, it seems.  A culture that neglects its young and abandons its elders is not even worthy of the word “culture.” Cultures, whether with people or yogurt, help things to grow and develop and require care.

These are not happy thoughts to start the day. Today I go teach a workshop to 300 teachers who might not have a job next year, reminding them of what is possible. Maybe after a joyful romp of singing, playing and dancing, we’ll go out to the streets and scream a while and then go down the road to Washington, burst into Congress, shake the senators by the shoulders and shout “Can’t you see what we’re doing here?!!!” And then do a few dances, sing a few songs and sit down at the table to figure out who we need to tie up to stop them from eating their young. Then we’ll get down to the serious work of putting money into what’s important—growing the next generation of human beings and caring for those who helped grow us. Won’t you join us?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hitchhiking to the Airport

“I like your rib.” This is what my friend and colleague, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, thought I said back in 1996 when we were teaching in Iceland and looking out at the view of the green-tiled roofs of the houses lining the harbor. She looked confused, waited a moment to reply and then said, “Did you just say you liked my rib?” I laughed heartily and then said it again more clearly: “I like Europe.”

And indeed I do. The carefully and artfully cultivated land, the manicured and sculptured gardens and parks, the exquisitely crafted architecture, the sidewalk cafes, pubs or beer halls, the elegance, sophistication and intellectual climate, the music, art, theater and film, the train stations and trains with seats facing each other, the character that changes notably from region to region, over borders and across seas. Charm. Personality. History.

But this morning, driving out to meet my shuttle at the Howard Johnsons’s past the large expanses of green as yet unmalled, egrets bathing and feeding in the waterways, I touched another travel myth that fed me so deeply in the past, an American version. Instead of villas and vineyards, it is vast expanses of wild punctuated by occasional roadside motels. Instead of trains rattling past castles, it is cars on the open road heading out to large expanses of sky. An American-style travel, not a journey into the glories (and atrocities) of the historical past, but an odyssey into the expansive possibilities of a newly-imagined future.

If Europe means a sense of belonging to the Glory That Was Greece or Medieval Monuments or Renaissance Flowering, the surety of being thoroughly French or Spanish or Italian, the pleasure of expressing the distinctive stamp of the Irish jig, Bulgarian Ritchnitza, German polka, then America means freedom from all inherited identities, a chance to re-define oneself anew. As Joni Mitchell put it, the colorful charm of Europe can also turn grey, “too old and cold and settled in its ways. Ah, but California…”

I first traveled across this country in that most delightful of vehicles, my imagination, keeping company with John Steinbeck and his lovable poodle Charley. Travels with Charley—how I loved that book! I saw the grandeur of Yellowstone, the impossibly tall redwood trees, the sadness of the South, through Steinbeck’s (and Charley’s) eyes and was so happy to be along for the ride in his trailer, Rocinante (without having to share the driving or walk the dog). Some years later, I went “On the Road” again with Jack Kerouac for a different perspective and then again with Ken Kesey (via Tom Wolfe) in yet another zany cross-country adventure involving some electric Kool-aid. Whether it was by trailer, car or “magic bus,” the mythos of the American landscape never failed to capture my fancy.

So when I crossed this country for real as a college student, once in a Volkswagen bug with my sister, her husband and friend (four of us with all our luggage for an entire summer in that tiny car!) and three other times hitchhiking, I was already primed to love everything about it. The changing music on the radio stations, the landscapes of staggering beauty, the shifting accents, the one-of-kind motels and diners, all gave a shape and color to it all. But above all was the sense of freedom; the day was mine and I could go here or I might go there or I would have to go wherever the hitchhiked rides offered where going— it didn’t particularly matter. What counted was the allure of the open road, that sense of roaming and roving and wandering, the travel itself the destination and no reservations necessary. Even when I waited 10 hours in the hot Nevada sun, my thumb weary and patience exhausted, it still was grand.

Now I write this in the Orlando Airport, about to board my scheduled airline with my assigned seat and it is a different kind of travel. Hitchhiking is some 40-years obsolete and though I can plug in my I-Pod in the rented car and choose my soundtrack, the radio stations everywhere mostly offer the same homogenized fare and almost none of it jazz or classical or, strangest of all, American folk music. The open road is a super-highway and all the rest stops are the same. The contours of character have been systematically flattened, the rhythms reduced to one pounding disco beat, the dynamic level set unvaryingly to LOUD and the colors leached out to one monochromatic dullness.

But the land itself, most notably that saved from bulldozing by the grace of National Parks, remains breathtaking, especially as one heads West. And the myth of American travel, given voice by wanderers from Whitman to Wolfe, is timeless. For one brief moment this morning, I could touch it again. If the shuttle had failed to show up at Howard Johnson’s, I was ready to hitchhike to the airport.