Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Return of the Traveling Music Teacher

It’s been three months since I set foot in an airport trailing my two trusty bags. There are no “welcome back!” signs, high fives from the ticket agents or nods of recognition from the Starbucks employees. I guess plane travel has gone on just fine without me—and I have been just fine without it. And yet there is a homey familiarity and twinge of excitement knowing I’m about to be catapulted into a markedly different reality, from Frankfort, Michigan to Frankfort, Germany— same first names, but whole different landscapes, histories, language, culture. Not that I’ll partake of much of the German Frankfort beyond the airport, because it’s a mere stop en route to Verona, Italy.

Why Verona? Is it a pilgrimage to rub Juliet’s breast for luck? (It’s a statue, folks). Hear opera again in La Arena, the outdoor theater where, in 1973 on tour with my college choir, we went to Ponchielli’s La Giocanda? (There’s a short ballet in that opera called “Dance of the Hours” and I almost fell out of my seat when I recognized the Alan Sherman song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadda!” That was my innocent “ugly American” moment). Or simply eat great pasta at sidewalk cafes?

Alas, nothing quite so romantic. Though I may do all three of the above, the real purpose is to put the traveling-Orff-teacher hat back on that I wore way back in January, February, March when I started this blog. There’s a three-day course for Italian Orff teachers and it’s time to get back into teaching mode. I’m not sure yet if I’m teaching in English or Spanish or simply gesture, but no matter, we’ll figure it out. But first a short hop from Traverse City, Michigan to Chicago that leaves at 3:44 and arrives at 3:40 (quite a feat of time travel). Then a seven-hour layover in Chicago. (Note to self—start reading the travel agent’s arrangements a little more closely.)


Now in Chicago, arrived from a plane small enough that some passengers had to move to the back to evenly distribute the weight. So proud of myself, remembering a hidden outlet to the right of Wolfgang Pucks where I can write this without losing battery power. But alas! no juice. So it’s the modern hunter’s search for a free source of electricity and score! in the walkway between gates D and B/C, there’s one on the silver air units. And it works!

Of course, all of this would be solved by the Red Carpet Club, where I once had privileges as a United Gold Card Premier Executive. But despite my lifelong allegiance, they either upped the requirements or I flew under the minimum one year and they demoted me to the lowly Silver Premier. “Too bad, buddy— you’re out with the huddled masses, sitting on the floor leaning against a post munching on your $4 Dirty Potato Chips while we’re in plush chairs replenishing our free drinks and snacks.” When will we start to discuss class in this country?

I’m sure I’ll ask this again when I board the plane and walk back through the plush first-class cabins through business class through Economy Plus to my cramped little seat in row 40. Why don’t they put the cheap seats up front and spare us the misery? Do they really need to taunt and torture us by making us walk through the seats of our dreams, with their fold down beds, private videos, smiling attendants who call you by name and say in their sexy voices, “More champagne?” while we peasants sit in seats designed by the Masochist Engineering Department watching the same movie we’ve already seen twice with the seat in front one inch from our nose? Do they really need to rub it in as we parade down the aisle from the luxurious to the bearable to our seats? Soon I imagine it will keep going to the hard-bench- church-pews to the standing room only cabin to the isolation chamber imported from San Quentin.

And by the way, what did these Corporate Executives do to deserve this anyway? Exploited some sweat-shop workers in Asia, sold their product regardless of its effect on human health and happiness, climbed over their colleagues to get the big desk by the window? Do they really need one more glass of champagne? Shouldn’t some other profession, say the dedicated lowly Music Teacher, be given some strokes for caretaking the bodies, minds and souls of our nation’s children? Well, really, why not?

With five more hours of layover, the long trip across the Atlantic, another three hour layover in Frankfort, arrive in Verona 6:30 tomorrow night and teach the next day, I better have more positive thoughts than these! Stay tuned—I’ll be checking back in.


18 hours since I left the shores of Lake Michigan and I arrived safely in Frankfort. The flight turned out to be pleasant enough, immersed in the world of Water for Elephants, a spontaneous buy while browsing the Chicago Airport bookstore. And then I fell asleep before the end of The Adjustment Bureau video. (Can anyone tell me if Matt Damon got the girl?) Now gratitude to Frankfort Airport, which unlike its American counterparts, has many seats without armrests inviting you to stretch out and sleep. And another great perk, at least in the Lufthansa area—free coffee and tea machines with choices like cappuccino, expresso, machiatto, café latte, hot chocolate, roiboos tea, etc. Yes, free! But boo-hiss to both Frankfort and Chicago, who have yet to follow San Francisco and other airports and offer Free Wi-fi. So the actual posting of this scintillating travel blog will have to wait, keeping my readers in edge-of-their-seat-suspense. J


Okay, suspense is over. I arrived in Verona on time without incident, my bags arrived and the person who was supposed to meet me was actually there to meet me. It doesn't always go so well. Out to the workshop sight, a pasta dinner and at 9:15 pm here and who knows what body-time, the fun game of “let’s see if I can sleep through the night.” Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rebuttal to Yesterday's Post

It’s a rainy day and my step-grandson and his pal are sitting on the couch talking about boogers, Darth Vader, arguing whether their classmate Danny is a doofus and exploring other fascinating topics. They start to punch each other and I can see it start to escalate. “Use your words,” I say, tongue-half-in-cheek and one snaps back with a vintage 12-year old boy rebuttal—“Actions speak louder than words.”

Mercifully, the sky clears and I push them out the door. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi once asked, ”How do you control a cow?” and answered his own question with “Give them a bigger meadow to roam around in.” (Not that I’m comparing kids to cows—cows chew their food much more thoroughly and with their mouths closed.) The architect of the outdoors designed the space just right for kids’ energy and in no time, they’re racing to the beach, digging holes and burying themselves up to their neck in the sand. I’m ready to settle down to read my book and they’re begging me to cover their arms with sand.

When they’ve had enough, they burst out, spraying sand all over my towel, then beseech me with a whine to pleeeeeasse take them back to the Sugarbowl sand dune. Reluctantly, I mark my place in my book and down the beach and up the dune we go. They Ninja-roll down it and then climb back up again for more. Show-offs!

While they’re crawling back up the dune like wounded war heroes, I head back the quarter-mile to my book and beach chair. Next time I look, I see their heads bobbing in the distant water, conveniently forgetting the “stay in sight” rule when swimming in the lake. There’s not a soul in sight to help me watch them, leaving me with a moral dilemma—do I keep reading my book and hope for the best or walk all the way back to get them?

Pesky kids! Why can’t they be more like us adults?!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bridge to Childhood

“I’m tired of being an adult” announced by sister-in-law Lori and lying on the Lake Michigan beach, I knew exactly what she meant. I mean, really, what’s the point?

I have had two near-perfect days sans watch and shoes, walking the shore to the outlet or up the enormous sand dune known as “the Sugar Bowl.” biking around the inland lakes and orchards, swimming in the back lake, sunning and reading on the front. Long lazy days feeling the layers peel back, so that when there was an indoor rainy spell and I decided to delete school e-mails, it felt strange to read about this meeting or that, who misplaced the stapler or moved the laminating machine, negotiations around schedule changes, the whole heavy load of keeping the machinery of school going and well-oiled. Even here in vacation paradise, my wife spent two hours traversing the seven levels of AT &T Voice-Mail Hell to get the phone re-instated, had to spend a morning at the bank in town dealing with her Dad’s estate while I went to the library to answer my 51 e-mails about details of upcoming workshops and such. You know—adult stuff.

I loved Peter Pan as a kid, but reluctantly accepted that some day, I too, would turn into that strange creature called a grown-up and listen to Wendy scold me about leaving hairs in the sink after shaving. And to my utter astonishment, I have managed to be a full-fledged functioning adult who owns a house, pays the bills and gets the garbage out on Thursdays. I’ve raised two children, managed to hold down a job, taken groups of students on field trips and brought them back alive. But it just takes so much damned work to keep the simplest of human activities going, be it a household, a soccer team, a school, a government—you name it. Of course, modern civilization is working way too hard for things we don’t really need and we’d probably be amazed at how much life could go on without filling out forms or renewing out cable TV subscription. But even the Pygmies in the rainforest have to hunt and gather, cook the meat and pound the tubers, fix the hole in the thatch hut roof and take care of the kids.

Still, there are days when we should consider the lilies in the fields and wonder if we might live a simpler life. Remember the old college graffiti (was it from a Bob Dylan song?) “If dogs run free, why not we?” Hanging out with my in-laws’ dog Hurley, I can only be envious of his abandon at jumping into the lake, chasing baby raccoons up trees, generally running around so carefree and happy and equally content to stretch out on the floor and sleep whenever she feels like it. Not a bad life. Of course, someone has to buy the dog food and spray the Fantastic on the rug when she decides to pee indoors.

If we have to be adults—and we do—I hope we all get the chance to cross a bridge back into childhood and live, if only for a few days each year, a life reduced to sand, sea and sky. To run full speed down the sand dune shouting in delight with arms spread, to catch frogs and build sandcastles, to ride waves and jump off rope-swings, lie on your back and look up at the clouds. You know—kid stuff.

Maybe that’s why I’ve spent my life hanging out with kids. They get it. Adults arrive at the cottage and start organizing their sock drawers while the kids run down to the beach and splash into the water, temperature be damned. Adults feel the need to write about these things on their blogs, while kids…hey! the sun came out! Last one in the water is a rotten egg!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

“To prepare ourselves for how we will be needed.” The poet David Whyte once said something to this effect to remind us how to plan our day. Not that we necessarily choose our career from altruistic motives. More likely, we simply follow some call we hear, track down that “glimmering girl who called me by my name and ran and faded through the brightening air,” as Yeats so beautifully describes it. If we follow her with persistence and dedication, we may someday walk with her and pick “the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.” Not just for us to savor and enjoy, but finally to offer them to whoever is nearby and hungry.

How lucky I have been! I followed that glimmering girl far down the path of “Orff music teacher” and lo and behold! it has proven to be of use to others. The children first and foremost, but these days, reaching far beyond the walls of the schools to people of all ages in all sorts of circumstances. It turns out that the skills needed for teaching a decent Orff music class can be of service in many other parts of life. “Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief” goes the old children’s rhyme (also the name of a Hoagy Carmichael song) and there is a little of each in my job description.

Take doctor. Music as a healing art is as ancient as the shamans in the forest and contemporary as the neuroscientist in the laboratory. Because music involves physical vibration, it works directly on our nervous system, our muscles, our heart rate and breathing, our brain waves. The details of precisely how and the stories of music’s healing power are freely available in many excellent books, but really, who needs proof? All I have to do is look at my mother’s face as the notes from the piano wash over her, listen to my 80-year olds friends as they sing the songs of their youth, watch their bodies sway to the waltzes and bounce to the swing tunes. The other day in Ann Arbor, I played at the home where my father-in-law passed away three months ago and seeing the difference in the faces of the folks there before I played and after was proof enough.

As for lawyer, music teachers these days are more practiced than most in defending our profession. We need to speak on behalf of our client, research the facts, connect the main ideas and speak with both passion and articulation to convince the jury that the schools are guilty of crimes against the young when they get rid of music programs. And when the verdict of “Guilty!” is brought in, we should let the punishment fit the crime. For all the politicians and school board members making these decisions, we would ban music from their lives for one month, put them in a virtual prison where not one note of music may be played, sung or sounded. Then they’ll understand (I hope) how vital it is to our sense of health. But I’d prefer to put them in reform school, where they had to go to an inspired Orff class every day for a month. Then they would get it.

And finally, political correctness aside, Indian chief. In my school, the music teachers often are the ones who hold the tribal lore, caretake the customs, teach the community songs and tell the stories. In the old politics, and still in traditional villages, it is almost always that way. Since the ways of a people are stored in ritual, dance, poetry, music, storytelling, the leaders must be practiced and trained in them all. And it turns out that these are precisely the skills the modern Orff teacher needs as well. Interesting, yes?

All of this is prelude to the second memorial service we held for my father-in-law Ted.
Having just put some of his ashes in a cemetery in Ann Arbor, the family wanted some scattered “up north” at the summer cottage by Lake Michigan they named “Ted’s Place.” They invited some of his summer friends and acquaintances, but being connected to no church here, who would minister the ceremony? Orff Music Teacher to the rescue!! I had the skills and experience to work with groups of people, knew the songs and could lead them, had lots of poetry at my fingertips and a musical sense of how such things might begin, develop and end. The details of the actual ceremony might be worth sharing as a model of sorts for others, but exceed the etiquette of Blog-length. Maybe tomorrow.

But back to the opening thoughts—to prepare for how we will be needed.  I’ve been accused many times in my life off taking too much of the spotlight and I’m sure some apologies are due. But I can’t help but wonder if this was a necessary step toward the ultimate purpose of it all, what Joseph Campbell called “being transparent to transcendence,” letting the light shine through you rather than on you, in service to others. It is such an unexpected pleasure that I’m prepared to walk into a senior home/ preschool/ university class anywhere on the planet and have something to offer. That I can officiate a memorial service, lead dances at a wedding, articulate inclusive decision-making processes at a staff meeting. I can’t help fix my mother-in-law’s plumbing, take charge of her finances or edit her old super-8 home movies on i-Movie, but it turns out that I can be useful to others in my own eclectic ways. Who could ask for anything more?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Recipe for Summer

The Solstice came and went announcing “Summer.” But true summer is a state of the soul, not accessible by calendar alone. How to arrive there? Try this recipe:

Change your answering machine to “Gone fishing,” throw the necessities, three novels, a book of poems and an old guitar into the car and start driving. Curse at the snarl of traffic from San Francisco to Sacramento and feel the first burst of release ascending into the pine-smell of the Sierras. Lose yourself in the Nevada sky and feel properly humbled by the purple-mountained-majesty of the Tetons. Note the change to the rolling hills and fruited plains of South Dakota. Set cruise control to 75 and sing along with each of the top 30 hits of June,1965—Catch the Wind (Donovan), Theme from a Summer Place (The Letterman), Sugar Pie Honey Bunch (Four Tops), Satisfaction (Rolling Stones), Mr. Tambouine Man (The Byrds). Feel the years peel away and remember that bright-eyed-bushy-tailed-innocence of a life yet-lived before you. Eat crackers and cheese at a picnic table rest stop by a grove of aspen trees. Breathe the silence and let another veil of busyness drop. Keep moving, now to the more intimate greens of Minnesota and Wisconsin with red barns contrast. Flop yourself down on the motel bed and stumble into an old Hitchcock movie on TV. Keep driving, now alongside the big trucks and lower speed limits and back into the swirl of Chicago-suburb traffic, the population having quintupled in the last two states. Spend the night at a friend’s suburban house with summer snow on the lawn from the neighbor’s cottonwood tree and remember the American paradise promised by “Leave It to Beaver”— the tree-lined streets, big-fielded elementary school, cozy downtown public-library, nearby Lake Michigan beach, large front lawns and everyone out walking their dogs while fireflies blink in the night. Pull into the Ann Arbor Holiday Inn to return the car 3,000 miles later and get a Turkish lemonade at a buzzing downtown café. Wake up the next morning straight into the arms of birdsong—summer has arrived.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Useless Beauty

What do Mt. Rushmore, elk antlers and a building called the Corn Palace have in common? I’ll give you a hint. Think Snow Sculpture Festival in Edmonton, Hubcap Ranch in Napa Valley, bamboo archways and xylophones in Bali, imbenge baskets from South Africa—all variations on “use what you’ve got.” (Or more proverbially, “When you’ve got lemons, make lemonade.” Having finally arrived at hot weather on the first official day of summer, that sounds appealing.)

The antlers are found in the hills of the Tetons, not only elk, but deer and moose as well. The Boy Scouts collect them and sell them and if you go to the plaza in the center of town in Jackson Hole, you’ll see four archways made entirely from elk antlers. The stores sell antler chandeliers, antler sculptures, and just plain antlers. The next state over, you can see the stone mountains of the Badlands and lo and behold, there are four large faces starting down from Mt. Rushmore. And nearby is Crazy Horse looking out from his perch. A bit further down the road in Mitchell, South Dakota, you can stop at the Corn Palace and see the murals on the outside made from—well, corn. (Still hoping to learn how to include photos—meanwhile, you can probably find images online.)

There indeed is a snow sculpture festival in Edmonton, equally remarkable sand sculptures on the beach at Rio, a ranch in Napa Valley with hundreds of hubcaps artfully arranged. Bali has scores of instruments and artwork made from bamboo, the South African imbenge baskets are made from discarded telephone wire, the galimotos in Ghana from old soda cans and such. Use what’s around you. That’s what humans have been doing for millennium and it’s one of the things that makes the art and technology of one place different from another.

Daniel Pink’s new book Drive talks about the importance of “intrinsic motivation” as a deep human instinct, but mostly uses examples from the computer world. People working from love and curiosity and making something useful—like the capacity to write this Blog online without either you or me having to pay for it. But there’s another kind of work we do that has no practical application at all. It’s entirely useless and yet, it gets us off the couch and out the door. It’s called art. It brings tourists flocking from miles around to witness the 17-year project that left four faces on Mt. Rushmore. Talk about intrinsic motivation! Imagine getting up every day for 17 years to chip away a little bit more rock to fulfill some inner vision and make it visible to the world.

Which is precisely what people called artists do. They’re no different from you or me, except that this urge to express something that we all share is in the driver’s seat instead of tucked away in the glove compartment. Like poet William Stafford, they might wake up early every day to write a poem with no idea what might appear on the paper or whether it will ever be sandwiched between two covers and available at the bookstore. Like Charlie Parker, they might wash dishes at a 52nd St. jazz club just so they could hear Art Tatum play and then go home and practice.

In Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables (yes, it was a book before the musical), a Bishop is showing off his flower garden and his visitor remarks:

“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than bouquets.”

…the Bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.”

William Carlos Williams put it another way:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

It has been a while since I’ve stepped up on the soapbox of arts advocacy, but I’m still getting e-mails from music teachers whose jobs have been cut. We should note that people are not driving off the freeway exit to marvel at someone’s math test. Be it Mt. Rushmore, the Corn Palace or a bunch of antlers artfully stacked, art adds a brightness to our day and reminds us of a life beyond the ordinary and mundane.

If we really pay attention, we might also be deeply moved by the original art of mountains carved by wind, rain and time, corn growing in the field and antlers atop the heads of elks. We humans are mere imitators, after all. But from the first cave paintings in southern France to sculptures made from hubcaps, the human urge to co-participate in creation is profound, thrilling and worthy of attention. School boards, take note.

Meanwhile, praise to all who’ve taken a moment from their day to pile stones in interesting formations, create a piece of art from old cell phones, make music from abandoned oil barrels. Useless beauty that somehow is necessary.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Coyote Urine

Title got your attention? Could be added to my list of underground rock bands. Or be the name of a micro-brewed beer (well, why not? Wyoming had one called Moose Drool). But it’s just another of those quirky little things I notice while traveling, those strange signs and sayings on the side of the road, billboards or T-shirts. Below is a sampling:

• Poison Creek “Hey! Let’s fill up our water bottles here!”

Badwater Creek “Refill, anyone?”

• Horse Thief CampgroundDon't forget to tie 'em up with a double knot.

• Blue Earth (Minnesota town)—“Where you from?” “Blue Earth.” “Well, nice meeting you…” (exit stage left)

Report All PoachersHmm. Don’t see many of these in downtown San Francisco.

Bridge May Be Icy 95 degrees out. 90% humidity. I don’t think so.

Your Mother Was Pro-Life (South Dakota billboard)— Well, it depends on which day you talk to her.

World’s Greatest Dad (T-shirts seen on three different men on Father’s Day)—Two of you are lying.

I’d Rather Be Tweeting (T-shirt on teenager at Mt. Rushmore) — And so she did.

And my favorite— product on the front seat of my mother-in-law’s car:

Real Coyote Urine Ground Cover Deception Scent GranulesI am not making this up. Costs $15 and is designed to sprinkle around the garden to keep deer away. It makes a point of insisting that it is real coyote urine, not freeze dried or artificially produced. So I’m trying to picture the process here. 
Two guys out in the sagebrush of the West:

“Excuse me, Coyotes. We have a little business going here and wonder if you wouldn’t mind peeing into these jars? We’ll put a snarly picture of you on the product if you like.”

If anyone knows the real story, let me know.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Happy Father's Day

It’s Father’s Day and my day begins with a Skype chat with my daughter in Argentina. I talk to my other daughter from the Mt. Rushmore cafeteria. It looks enough like the one shown in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” for me to get a little vicarious thrill of recognition and share the moment with her. Out the window, carved impressively on the mountain, are two of the Founding Fathers and their descendants—Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, subject of yesterday’s entry. Of course, all reports of Teddy at the Monument are extolling his accomplishments of extending America’s political and economic muscle. He was the first president to leave our shores, but it turns out, mostly to put his foot on the neck of other countries and extend our power. In some ways, he opened the door to our domination of the Philippines, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq—always under the flag of freedom, of course, but mostly to get what adds to our coffers and rarely (if ever) actually contributing to democracy in those countries.

But it’s Father’s Day and I have other things on my mind. It’s the first Father’s Day that my wife will experience without her Dad. And for me, it’s been four years. I’m wearing my Dad’s purple shirt and writing to him in my journal telling him the news. I do this on special occasions or whenever the spirit hits, taking seriously the ancient idea that we must live at least part of our lives on behalf of those who have left us—speak for them, walk for them, sing for them, dance for them– and then tell them about it. Since they no longer have bodies and voices, we can use ours to not only do what we need to do, but to enjoy on their behalf what they used to do— eat certain foods, go to special places, speak select poems, play and sing specific songs.

The other day, I played one of my father’s piano compositions for my Mom. As a young man, he dabbled both in composition and painting before the business world swallowed him up. One of the best things—as he would often remind me—I did for him in his later years was to play and record his compositions. He would listen to that tape most every day of the last five years of his life and yet more often in his last months. He had a good ear for a decent melody and accompanying harmony, but without training and perseverance, his development was technically weak. But still, they were his notes and his attempt to express feelings habitually left unexpressed in the business world of the 50’s and 60’s. Like a good American man of that time, he locked them away, but these tapes were the key that reminded him of a world beyond the conventions of merely bringing home the bacon and mowing the lawn.

So in honor of his memory, I’m including his favorite poem, one he could speak at a drop of a hat and often did. I now speak it out loud on several occasions, to the delight of those who haven’t heard it before and to the first hint of an eye-roll from those who have had heard it often. It’s from an obscure novel by Philip Wylie titled “Finnley Wren.” Read it out loud— like all poetry, the music comes out better when spoken.

And think about what poem you’ll be remembered for and pull it out on all family occasions, eye-rolls be damned! We’re here to leave our footprint on this earth and to be remembered as only we can be. 

Happy Father’s Day, Dad—your legacy lives on.

Life is just a passing spasm
           In an aggregate of cells;
Kiss me, pretty protoplasm,
            While your osculation dwells.

           Glucose-sweet, no enzyme action
            Or love-lytic can reduce.
Our relations to a fraction
Of hereditary use.

Nuclear rejuvenation
Melts the auricle of stoic:
Love requires a balanced ration—
Let our food be holozoic;

Let us live with all our senses
While anabolism lets us—
Till—with metaplastic fences
Some katabolism gets us.

Till, potential strength, retreating,
Leaves us at extinction’s chasm:
And, since time is rather fleeting,
Kiss me, pretty protoplasm.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Today I had to stop the car on the road to let eight bison cross to the other side. That’s not something that happens every day. In fact, never. It was quite a thrill to watch them gallop as a small herd and equally exciting to see some pronghorn antelope, a distant moose, a yet more-distant black bear and the other furry and winged creatures who live in Grand Tetons National Park.

And so, with some dim memory of Teddy Roosevelt’s role in creating and sustaining national parks, I was all set to dedicate this Blog to Teddy and publicly thank him. But first, a trip to Wikipedia to get the facts straight. And there I read about all his laudable achievements, closing with:

“Roosevelt has consistently been ranked by scholars as one of the greatest United States presidents.”

Like any of us, I’m always happy to embrace a hero and Teddy’s memorable quote “Walk softly and carry a big stick” captures succinctly the essence of my “olive branch and the arrows” Blog. But I have read my Howard Zinn and James Loewen (author of “Lies My History Teacher Taught Us”) and am savvy enough to know that most of history as taught is the story of the winners told by the winners—kind of like an ongoing Fox News. So away from my books, I took to the Internet, found some stories by Howard Zinn, like one about Roosevelt’s congratulating the wholesale massacre of Filipinos. And then came quotes from Roosevelt himself from a variety of sources:

"I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."

"I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

Then two more stories from Zinn’s A People’s History:
When a mob in New Orleans lynched a number of Italian immigrants, Roosevelt thought the United States should offer the Italian government some remuneration, but privately he wrote his sister that he thought the lynching was "rather a good thing" and told her he had said as much at a dinner with "various dago diplomats . . . all wrought up by the lynching."
William James, the philosopher, who became one of the leading anti-imperialists of his time, wrote about Roosevelt that he "gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves, and treats peace as a condition of blubberlike and swollen ignobility, fit only for huckstering weaklings, dwelling in gray twilight and heedless of the higher life. . . ."

So there you have the bad and the ugly—the same-old, same-old shouldering the “white man’s burden” of conquering the world, with war as the preferred method, massacre if necessary, shady dealings (with Colombia and the Panama Canal), mostly big sticks and very little soft walking.

Except maybe in the wilderness (though even here, Roosevelt’s passion was hunting). At any rate, while President "he signed legislation establishing five national parks: Crater Lake, Oregon; Wind Cave, South Dakota; Sullys Hill, North Dakota (later re-designated a game preserve); Mesa Verde, Colorado; and Platt, Oklahoma (now a part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area)." This from Wikipedia.

So thanks Teddy, for that. Like so many in power, you protected privilege and wielded your big stick ruthlessly, but sometimes did the right thing. That’s the human drama—we’re all unique combinations of the “good, the bad and the ugly” ( I would also add, “the beautiful”). Good leaders do bad things (Jefferson and his slaves) and bad leaders do good things (Nixon in China). People get caught in the prevailing winds of their times, with neither the vision nor courage to stand firm or walk the other way. It happens on all scales, from the grand stage of history down to the school board and staff meeting.

Still though, when it’s time to choose our heroes and pass them on to the next generation, I much prefer William James and Mark Twain, two contemporaries who criticized Roosevelt’s policies, spoke their truth to his power. So thanks to Howard Zinn and others for not only telling the truth to bring the old heroes down to size (don’t get me started on Columbus), but telling the stories of the many hero-worthy Americans that the history books leave out or whitewash. (Everyone knows about Helen Keller’s struggle with her disabilities, but few know she was a radical Socialist.)

Meanwhile, Teddy, I’ll see you tomorrow at Mt. Rushmore, with renewed curiosity about what the guidebooks say about you. And maybe I’ll speak some of your quotes out loud to my fellow tourists, just so they hear the larger picture. But still, thanks for your work on the National Parks—they’re magnificent.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ode to the Bicycle

When I was in 8th grade, I was addicted to basketball. “Addicted” is the precise term to describe the sensation I had that until I had my hands on the bumpy surface of that spherical orb, until I could dribble it this way and that and loft it in the air and hear it swish through the metal chains of the net, I was restless and ill at ease. I needed it so badly that in the winter, I would walk three blocks to the local playground, ball in one hand, shovel in the other, and actual shovel the court myself just so I could dribble and shoot, snow and 25 degree weather be damned. That’s how bad it was.

And now I have a little of the same feeling about bicycles. Oh, I can get through the day without biking and not get the shakes—in fact, many days and sometimes whole weeks—but when I mount the saddle and start pumping the pedals, there is that same gratifying bodily sensation I felt back in my basketball days of being at home, of some deep physical need fulfilled. I felt it today as we rented bikes by the Grand Teton park entrance and rode for 25 glorious miles on the newly completed bike path under the gaze of the breathtaking mountains on one side and expansive sagebrush meadows on the other.

Since yesterday’s entry was an Ode to the Auto, it is only fitting to praise the bicycle. No sheet metal over your head, no floorboard under your feet, just you in the crisp mountain air inhaling the clouds and feeling the always-threatening, but never-delivering occasional rain drops and the wind on your face. Away from the toys that can either feed or distract—the radio, the in-car video system, the car phone—it’s a different kind of solitude. A good time to plan classes or review where you summered the past twenty years or just let your thoughts fly with the breeze.

The old adage “chopping wood heats you twice” has its bicycle parallel. Biking gets you somewhere while saving you the trip to the gym. It has that element of swiftness and speed that is the stuff of mythology, but also the chance to just drift and amble. And stop. Today, the most enormous elk I had ever seen peeked out down the road before crossing. The bike allowed me to silently creep up and see where he had gone. I also spotted and stopped for deer, a distant moose, several marmots and a host of inviting wildflowers— larkspur, spring beauties, an occasional lupine.

Like the car, the bicycle promises adventure. When I was 10 years old in suburban New Jersey, riding one-speed bikes without helmets, my friends and I decided to take off one day and cross the Goethals Bridge some 25 miles away. And cross it we did, all the way down the other side into Staten Island. For anyone who knows that area—and imagine this without bike paths—that was quite a remarkable feat and it is a statistical improbability that I’m here to tell you about it. I remember a few other daring rides like that and believe that our little club disbanded when Bruce Crookston’s handlebars fell off as he was careening down a hill in Watchung Reservation. Another amazing survival story, but I think that was our Icarus-warning to stay closer to home.

From those promising beginnings, the bicycle has re-entered my life big-time. It is at once my preferred vehicle for errands, exercise, pleasure and increasingly, commuting to work. And I am far from alone. The rise of bicycle-mania is a cultural explosion akin to the printing press and cell phone. It seems like every day a new bike lane opens in San Francisco and the number of folks riding alongside me are growing every day. I was disappointed when I went to China in 2007 and saw that the government’s campaign to push cars had worked (much to the detriment of air quality and traffic), but heartened visiting Amsterdam where bikes outnumbered cars and pleased to visit my daughter in Washington DC and pick out one of those community bikes sprouting up like wildflowers in every neighborhood. (And then ride on a bike path that goes right by Reagan Airport, a strange juxtaposition  of transport systems).

Of course, in typical American-style, being “into” biking often means the whole 9 yards of special clothes, subscribing to the bike magazines, talking shop about the latest bike shoes or bike-related gizmo. I refuse to wear Spandex and prefer the Salzburg model of elderly women in dresses with their wicker basket on front to carry the day’s groceries. But whatever. The bike is human ingenuity and technology on just the right scale, a blend of machine and muscle, a mix of speed and leisure, a combination of practicality and pleasure. Praise to the bicycle!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to ride to the basketball court and shoot some hoops.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ode to the Auto

To cross into Wyoming on a summer’s day with Mustang Sally pumped up on the car radio is to enter an American mythological landscape larger than life. “Ride Sally Ride!” you sing along at top volume, your skin tingling, your blood pumping, the wind in your hair (or what’s left of it), swept along into the heartbreaking beauty of the green meadows, snow-capped mountains and big blue sky. As my friend Chris Cunningham likes to remark: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It was also Chris who once remarked in a Joseph Campbell Study Group: “My first sensation of what it might mean to ‘follow my bliss’ was driving my car.” I remember being mildly shocked by this somewhat politically incorrect confession. Here we were talking about the great themes of mythology and he’s talking about a gas-guzzling, environmental-wrecking, factory-produced machine?

But Chris had it right. Political, practical and ecological concerns aside (as they must be in the mythological landscape), to “head out on the highway,” to “plan to motor West,” to “ride along in your automobile, with no particular place to go” is to have “fun, fun, fun”—that is, until “your daddy takes the T-bird away.” Remember these songs singing out the bliss of the American version of the open road? Getting into your G.T.O. or Little Deuce Coupe, passing The Little Old Lady from Pasadena out on Route 66 on the way to Surf City? They were the soundtrack to the great American Keruoackian mythology and promised to deliver everything that mythology cares about—adventure, search, flight, freedom, taking the hero’s journey snug in your Volkswagen bug or sitting up high in the van seat.

Mythology touches on the timeless and placeless universals, but often enters through particular manifestations of such. The excitement of moving and the double-excitement of moving faster than your own legs can carry is as old as the horse, the chariot, the stagecoach, the train, each of which constellated its own mythos. (I’m still enamored with the European train mythology, captured in countless movies and brought to life in my actual European train travel.)

But the car brought something new into the picture—a quality of autonomy and independence, the balance between giving yourself up to what the world offers and maintaining some sense of autonomy, independence and control. After all, trains demand that you follow their schedule, go only where the tracks are laid, get off and on at predetermined places, accept the décor of the car you sit in and deal with the people sitting next to you. But the automobile is indeed your mobile home. You choose your style of car, you choose who sits in the front seat with you, you set your radio dial where you want it and the volume you want it at. You also choose (schedule-permitting) what route to take, what side roads to visit, what pace your prefer. No wonder the auto trumped the train—choice is a red-blooded American virtue. And perhaps a universal one as well.

The automobile is a supreme paradox. The prefix “auto” means “self, one's own, by oneself” while “mobile” means “movement.” At the same time that you’re out there moving in the world, you’re also inside seated on your moving meditation cushion, your comfortable easy chair, your rocking chair on the proverbial front porch. Robert Bly called it “this solitude covered with iron.” It takes you to new and exciting places, but when the excitement gets too much, you can lock the door and drive away. You can eat meals in the car, you can sleep in the car and when you’re young and have no place to go, you can dive into the back seat of the car and hope that some of life’s supreme mysteries may be revealed in a tangle of disheveled clothes and heavy breathing.

I’m carrying with me Garrison Keillor’s new collection, Good Poems: American Places,  the perfect choice for this road trip. The poems are about places in the American landscape— one’s own back yard, the subway or a grand adventure into wild places—where something happened to capture the poet’s attention and poet took the trouble to tell about it and include the place in the telling. The first of fifteen sections is subtitled “On the Road” and as the titles reveal— Driving through the Poconos, Driving at Night, Driving West in 1970, Top Down, Mambo Cadillac—the car was one of those significant places where something special occurred, some sense of blessing was bestowed, something holy happened. Stephen Dunn’s poem, The Sacred, is alone enough to capture what I’m trying to get at here.

And here’s another paradox. This vehicle of flight, freedom, music playing, love in the back seat, the world trailing behind in the rear-view mirror while the road beckons ahead, has perhaps also been the most destructive force of the 20th century. It helped create our addiction to fossil fuel, which in turn excused our ravenous appetite for war. It killed off the small towns and grew up the strip malls, it birthed the assembly lines and factory models that leaked into our schools, it invited trucked-in food from corporate farms to out-compete the local and home-grown—well, it’s a long list.

And yet, how we loved it. And love it still. A little like smoking—we know it’s terrible for us, but wasn’t that a pleasure to take time out and do nothing but inhale and exhale, a few smoke rings here and there, a style that we cultivated, a chance to chat with fellow smokers, the haze of the jazz club mixed indelibly with the slow curls of the saxophone’s notes.

But just as I’m more grateful than not that I can go to any restaurant or jazz club or train car without smoke, so will I graciously accept the demise of the automobile (or the rise of the electric car?). It had its time and behind the scenes, it was a horror, but up there in the driver’s seat (or back there during the drive-in movie), wasn’t it grand?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Let's Get Sirius

Well, live and learn. I got some books on CD at the library before beginning the trip, knowing that the narrow band of what radio plays is too little and its constant shouting and commercials too much. Imagine my delight when I saw a little USB port in the rental car inviting me to plug in my I-Pod!!  Imagine my frustration when it kept reading, “Error. Can’t access.”

And then one more round of delight when I accidentally pushed a button and something new came on—radio without commercials and choice far beyond the norm. I’m talking not one, but SEVEN different jazz options and then classical music of all sorts and then comedy, sports, news, even some books on tape. And of course, pop, disco, hip-hop, what have you. You all probably know all about SiriusXM, but this was new to me.

On the Sirius Website, they say things like “Imagine just about every kind of music.” Under “Tell Me What I’ll Hear,” they say, “The question is what won’t you hear on SiriusXM?” Under “How Much Does It Cost?” they say, “You can’t put a price on being able to hear exactly what you want, when you want.” This is typical Madison Avenue, with its over-the-top promise and exaggeration, but it’s also part of a pervasive thinking that bothers me. The kind of thing like “I-Pad. It does everything you could ever want or imagine.”

And I just have to take issue with that. I-Pad may help me order tomato seeds, but it won’t water them. It may give me a recipe, but it won’t cook my meal or wash my dishes or light the candles at the dinner table or assure a scintillating conversation. It might get me a date through some dating network, but it won’t mend my broken heart. It might help send out the funeral notice, but it won’t heal my grief. You get the idea. You just have to be careful about that “everything” claim. It’s both insulting to the machine by claiming too much and to the human being by claiming too little for our deepest needs and desires. 

Now in my short two days with Sirius as commercial free radio, I’m pretty impressed. The jazz selections were wide and varied and hit both the classics and some new material. The categories—Siriusly Sinatra, 60’s rock, Latin jazz, etc. —were intriguing. But when it claims to cover all kinds of music, it is throwing the gauntlet into my territory. I have no choice but to pick it up and set things straight. Pay attention— there will be a test.

For starters, I noticed that amidst the 50 or 60 choices, I never found one for American folk music. I’m not talking Peter, Paul and Mary here (though that would be sweet), but real homegrown folk music— Appalachian ballads and dance tunes, Georgia Sea Island ring plays, New England sea chanteys, Louisiana Cajun music, cowboy songs, Tex-Mex music, Native American chants, Minnesota polkas, Mississippi Delta Blues, chain-gang songs, spirituals and much, much more. Part of the car journey mythos traveling through landscape could be actually hearing the music that grew from that place, the whole rich heritage of our musical polyglot. Wouldn’t that be something? So note what’s omitted from the “everything “ claim— not just that it’s hard to find Sundanese gamelan or Afro-Columbian Currulao, but difficult to find Jean Ritchie singing her Kentucky family’s songs or Mississipi John Hurt plucking out his blues or Bessie Jones singing clapping plays with children in Georgia.

Sit up straight here, because this is important stuff. We all see (and hear) the world through our narrow band of exposure and experience and that’s okay as long as we’re aware that it ain’t the whole deal. Stop anyone on the street in America and ask them, “What types of music are there?” and I imagine (though maybe I’m being generous here), that most will say “Rock. Pop. Rap. Jazz. Classical. Country.” Pressed further, they might sub-divide into Alternative, Heavy Metal, Punk, Disco or Swing, Be-bop, Jazz-Rock, Latin or Opera, Baroque, Romantic, etc. The more musically conscious might spin off into New Age, Techno, Minimalist and that catch-all, World Music. But still, this is just the tip of the tip of a mammoth iceberg that most can barely imagine.

Take my bagpipe. Please. (Snare drum, ka-chunk!) If I say bagpipe, you say Scotland. (Except in Scotland, where a kid pressed to figure out where it’s from said “Tenerife.” Huh?) And now I have to tell you about the Uillean pipes from Ireland, the Northumbrian pipes of England, the Gaita from Galicia, the Zampogna from Italy, the Dudelsack from Germany, the Sackpipa from Sweden, the Musette from France (one of 15 different French bagpipes, each with its own name) before finally arriving at the Gaida from Bulgaria (also called gaida in Greece). And that’s not getting into the Middle East, North Africa or India—nor does it cover all the European pipes.

And if you should get into Bulgarian gaida music, you’ll have to distinguish between different size gaidas and the distinction in styles that come from each region. And within those styles, the particular dance rhythms (pravo horo, paidushka, richinitza, lesnoto, daichovo, etc.). And probably not a single one of them is represented on SiriusXM.

If you’re very musically hip, you might know that samba and bossa nova come from Brazil, but you won’t impress anyone there if you also don’t know something about Maracatu, Frevo, Ciranda, Choro, Lambada, Samba-Reggae. And by the time you finally learn something about these styles, four more new ones have probably been invented. Same with Cuba, Colombia, India, China—well, really, just about every place on the planet.

And besides musical styles, there are all the composers and musicians whose work is worthy, but underexposed. I’m thinking Johannes Ockeghem and John Dunstable, Herbie Nichols and Blossom Dearie, Federico Mompou and Gunild Keetman, Mark Growden and…well, the list is long.

Music and musical style is a moving target, a response from people to the landscape and the times they live in and often both. Cosmopolitan culture groups them under broad categories that give the illusion of uniformity, but the actual diversity is extraordinary. For SiriusXM to truly represent “all kinds of music” would probably require thousands of channels. And that’s just the recorded music. Keep in mind—and I know I’m stretching your imagination here—that most of the music played today and certainly in the past has not even been recorded. Before recording technology (just a mere century old), its notes and structures might be captured on paper (and again, a very, very small percentage of it at that), but most of it evaporated in the air or echoed in the minds, ears and hearts of the listeners and the players. And that is still true today. It’s a large, large world and there are enormous chunks of it—music, dance, art, poetry, what have you—that still has not been captured, recorded, studied, shared and made public. Just a reality check for the "everything" claim.

SiriusXM feels like a good step in a good direction and I thank them. But why stop here? Two suggestions for the Sirius programmers to take their job more seriously:

1)    Consider a yet broader band of music to reach the listening public. Offer a few things off of the beaten paths. (Starting with the 26 recordings I’ve made of the kids at The San Francisco School since 1983! Over 900 pieces arranged for the Orff Ensemble by kids from 3 to 14 years old.)

2)    Don’t feed the hubris that we know it all and have captured it all on our machines. Modify your adjectives—from “every kind of music” to “a number of kinds of music”—from “hear exactly what you want” to “hear some things you want to hear and others you didn’t even know you wanted.” You get the idea.

And this to serious Sirius listeners: Everything you enjoy listening to—from Jean Ritchie's Wondrous Love to James Brown’s Popcorn to Mozart’s Requiem to Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight and beyond came from a particular time and a particular place and a particular culture and a particular person or group of people who were living it at the height of their senses, emotions and intelligence. They weren’t just entertaining themselves pleased that they had videos, recordings, games, at their fingertips. They were actively making and shaping the culture by actively making and shaping art.

Let’s not forget that. To make art one must live an authentic life larger than the constant distraction of instant entertainment. You gotta get your hands dirty, your heart broken, your shoulder punched, your car repossessed—and then tell about it. You gotta turn off the flickering screens and look around you, take the earphones out and listen, put down the book and talk to someone.

So stop reading this Blog, go out and do something and then write a song about it. Record it on your Flip, put it up on Youtube, advertise it on Facebook and if you’re lucky, someone will record it and include it on SiriusXM. And I’ll listen to it the next time I drive out West.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Apologies to the Jains

Summer officially began at a Thai restaurant in Davis, California, 90 minutes from the San Francisco fog, eating Pad Thai outdoors. Off comes the fleece vest, out come the shorts, Tivas replace shoes. Then the climb into the Sierras, expecting snow on the side of the road, but it was only on the distant peaks. Down the other side toward the bright lights of Reno. (A recent Prairie Home Companion radio show was in a city that consciously shut off lights at night so stars were visible. Can’t remember the term, but like “slow food,” seems like it could be a trend— Reno/Las Vegas, take note.)

In the senior equivalent of “living on the edge,” we had set off without hotel reservations and found a place at the Sunrise Motel in Sparks. I guess it is still possible to just show up and find something that isn’t a chain. We awoke to the roar of the nearby freeway and the smell of the owner’s Indian cooking, took off further down the road to Lovelock and lo and behold, breakfast at another non-chain in Lovelock, La Casita. A quaint place and a waitress impressed that I could pronounce Chilaquiles. A nearby booth was filled with three grey-haired ladies and that part of the brain that instantly classifies people—gender, age, race, weight, attractiveness (which comes first?)—thought “three old ladies.” And then another part of the brain snickered, “Hey! They’re probably your age. Or younger.”

Before breakfast was over, the waitress came out singing Happy Birthday to the folks at a nearby table (pretty good singing, patrons of La Casita restaurant!) and a candle embedded in an ice cream taco. Seemed a bit early in the morning for my taste and I should have asked more about the ice cream taco, but the matron of the small group started telling us how her niece was 15 and her nephew over there also 15 and the other fellow 22 and then got into the family history. I thought about my friend in Germany who was astounded in her visit to the Midwest by conversations like this, strangers telling you their life story after a one-minute acquaintance. At first, she was amazed—such instant revelation not a common practice in Germany— and later, critical, “It seems like Americans can appear to get very close very fast, but it never goes any deeper.”

And then off across the vast expanses of Nevada. Whenever I worry about overpopulation, a drive through Nevada is re-assuring. It really seems about the same as it was some 40 years ago when I first came through. All those little towns—Winnemucca, Ely, Battle Mountain, Elko—didn’t seem much bigger now than they were then. Though I could be wrong about that. I regretted I didn’t have my camera up front in the car, amused by some of the signs:

• Hitchhiking Prohibited: Prison Area
• Beverly Hills (this at a turn-off to nowhere)
• Bullets Leave Holes (with photos of kids)

Well, this last was not quite so amusing, perhaps a sober reminder to kids used to video games to understand the difference.

On past the mirage-like salt flats of Utah, zipping by downtown Salt Lake City and remembering Joseph Campbell’s profound analysis of the symbols of cultural shifts. The church used to be the tallest building (as it was in Europe through the Renaissance), then trumped by the State Capitol building as the political power of the State grew stronger than the church. Finally, the high-rises of business in the 20th century signaled the corporate economic power that trumped the political power—which is where we are today. (And why Donald Trump running for President makes it more above-aboard and official as to who’s really running the show.) In Salt Lake City, you can see the whole story within a few blocks.

On we pressed into the more lush green of Utah, fueled by the crunch of corn-nuts to keep us awake and ignoring Michael Pollan’s advice to not buy gas and food at the same place. Pulled into Pocatello, but with a rodeo the next day, there was no room at the Inn—Days, Ramada, Best Western, that is. So on to Idaho Falls and the surprise of actual waterfalls and a lush park by a thriving river. Big blue skies, crisp, fresh air and ready for a morning walk to “listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees.” (Most people think that “Don’t Fence Me In” was an old cowboy song, but in fact was written by urban esthete Cole Porter.)

From here, back in our rented Hyundai to view more of the landscape from our bug-splattered windshield. And so the title. The Jains are a sect in India who take the philosophy of Ahimsa—“do no harm”—to the extreme degree of wearing masks to avoid inhaling and thus, killing, microbes. They would be horrified driving the freeways of the West. Our car is the Genghis Khan of the bug kingdom, decimating them with our windshield and front grill in genocidal proportions. Sorry about that, little creatures. My advice: stay away from freeways. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

On the Road Again

Aloof and lighthearted, I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me.
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose…”

And so summer begins with Whitman’s inviting lines and that fleeting sense of release from the tangles of the daily round, loosing the knots, soaking in the soothing waters of time without schedules and the call to attend to morning birds and evening stars, the landscape no longer the backdrop for one’s personal movie, but the living, animated world inviting us to partake, observe, savor and enjoy:

“Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.”

Of course, that “long brown path” is a paved highway with clearly marked exit signs and my choices of where to go are constrained by hotel reservations and rental car return dates— not exactly the larger freedom sung by The Incredible String Band years ago:

“Farewell sorrow, praise God the open door. I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

But still. I feel my blood tingling as I pack, anticipating that moment when the last bill is paid, Orff contract mailed, e-mail answered and longing for that exhilarating sense of driving way toward the wide open skies of the West. Now this travel blog will earn its name again, starting with a drive Eastward through the Grand Tetons and Mt. Rushmore en route to Michigan and the old cottage up north by the lake. At the end of June, it's back to the airports (three months away from them!) and a hop across the pond to Verona, Salzburg, Madrid. A chance to invite all those qualities of self locked up in busyness, business and the battles of the working life to come enter the room again, stretch out and sit on some front porch somewhere in quiet conversation. Of course, I will be working in Europe and happily so, but back in the Lone Ranger world of teaching without meetings, working with adults who have sought me out and if there are any tensions (which there rarely are), no need to resolve them—we’ll be saying goodbye in one or five days.

But every opening in one direction is a closing in another, every hello matched with a goodbye, every sweet joined with a bitter (that marvelous phrase they use in Brazil—saudade: bittersweet). Even as the spirit thirsts for this moment, there is an accompanying regret and sadness leaving my 90-year old mother for six weeks, my 17- year old cat and all the others I love and care for. But back to Whitman:

“I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go…
I am filled with them and I fill them in return.”

See you all at the Motel 6— that is, if they have free wireless.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Arrows and the Olive Branch

Take out a dollar. Now put it in an envelope and send it to me. (Just kidding!) Instead, look on the flip side of George Washington. Ever noticed the pyramid and the eye? This was one of the two Great Seals proposed by Charles Thompson in 1782. Annuit Coeptis roughly translates as “He (the eye of Providence) favors our undertakings.” Novus Ordo Seclorum refers to a “New Order of the Ages” (as distinct from the New World Order of the Right-wing Spinmeisters.)

Well, isn’t that interesting. We’ve handled thousands of these bills, but probably rarely stopped to notice to ponder this. But wait, there’s more. The second of the seals is an American Eagle with 13 stars above his head, a shield of 13 stripes (both representing the colonies). Note what’s in the Eagle's talons—13 arrows in the left, an olive branch in the right. Simplistically speaking, the arrows represent war, the olive branch, peace. Now note which way the eagle is looking. Optimistically toward the olive branch, but not releasing the arrows from its grip— hence, aiming for peace, but prepared to defend itself with war if necessary. (I thank Joseph Campbell for first pointing this out.)

Shouldn’t this be common knowledge amongst schoolchildren and citizens? The Seal suggests that Institutes of Peace should outnumber preparations for war. Instead of—or perhaps, in addition to—military maneuvers training young people to kill, we need Boot Camp for peace—training in non-violent conflict resolution, verbal communication, emotional intelligence, historical analysis, artistic expression. Well, that could be called school.

But this is a matter for another Blog. I’m fresh from the last day of school, where the growing tensions between the old style of egalitarian decision-making sitting around the table and the new style of hierarchical decision-making by select groups behind closed doors reached its breaking point. The school has felt like a place that the eye of Providence favored, a New Order and Vision for the Ages to come. Lately, if feels like it's trying to be like everyplace else. So the staff got together and voted on proposals  designed to restore our sense of voice and inclusion and bridge the lands of “them” and “us” until it feels like “we” again. In the course of these discussions, out came everyone’s relationship with conflict, from “let’s not talk about it” to “let’s just all get along” to “I don’t even trust my own mother” and every point in-between.

And this brings me to the arrows and the olive branch. I’m long trained to gaze toward the olive branch and it’s a good view. But more and more I appreciate those arrows in the talon. I’m feeling that so much of the conflict I’ve had these past months has not come from issues with anger management, personality disorder or clashes of temperament (though they all have their place)— I see the problem coming from systemic procedures that block communication, shut down conversation, concentrate power in the hands of the few without sufficient checks and balances and accountability. In short, failure to follow good democratic procedure.

And to analyze this requires the sharpness of arrows, a true aim that recognizes the target, that can distinguish between the bull’s eye and the outer ring, that can understand how much tension is needed in the bow to release the arrow. It requires the eye of a good scout, the ear of someone on night-watch listening to the snapping of twigs, the nose of someone who can smell when “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” It requires a community of people who are vigilant in defense of their own core values, who are watchful and alert to the small and big signs of danger. It asks for a guarded trust beyond the naïve faith that “we all have good intentions,” a faith based on fact, a mind that can detect the words intended to hide from those that say exactly what they mean.

Another weapon favored in this kind of metaphorical thinking is the sword. Manjusri, one of the enlightened Buddhas, is often depicted holding a flaming sword that cuts through ignorance and duality. (Note—it is the sword of discrimination that moves us from the “them/us” duality to the “we” unity.) Chinese mythology sees the sword as “penetrating insight,” in Japanese mythology, it represents courage and strength, in Arthurian legend, it is the “Sword in the Stone” that identifies the true king.

Brandishing the sword, stringing the arrows to the bow, these are sometimes necessary actions to defend territory—“This is a line you may not cross.” We all have these lines and since it is fairly certain that someone will try to cross them at some point, we would do well to be trained in sword-raising. Sometimes just showing the sword is enough to let folks know how serious you are. Sometimes bad ideas need to be escorted out the gate at sword-point. Once good faith and intelligent discrimination is restored, we can always turn those swords into ploughshares and plant those olive trees.

But as the dollar suggests, keep a few arrows or swords around. Just in case. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Leaping Into Summer

Harrison Elementary School, Roselle, New Jersey. I’m 8, 9, 10 years old and watching the clock nudge its snail’s pace toward 3 o’clock. One final click, the liberty bell of freedom rings and I spring from my seat, run downstairs, burst out the double doors and leap off the steps straight into the arms of summer. Every year the same ritual, that glorious moment of release and promises of long days following my curiosity instead of squeezing it into textbooks and schedules. Wandering through Warinanco Park, pick-up baseball, the summer playground with its nok-hockey, tetherball and ping-pong possibilities. Sitting on the front stoop, cat on lap, greeting the passing neighbors while waiting for the fireflies to come out. Tinkering on the piano, watching Million Dollar Movie at night, reading The Wind in the Willows while listening to my scratchy recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Mole, Rat and Toad inexorably linked with certain musical motifs. Running to Uncle Louie, the ice-cream man, piling in the car to drive down the Garden State Parkway to nearby Sandy Hook Beach or far-away Asbury Park, with its magical boardwalk and games of ski-ball.

Ah, summer! Whatever evil madman thought up mandatory schooling is somewhat excused by giving us the 10-week summer vacation. Though it’s threatened by year-round schools, the sly shift to beginning in late August, the idea of following Europe’s six-week model, I am loyal to the 10-week summer. As a teacher, I know my students lose lots of momentum—the difference between the music the kids can make in September and June is measurable in light years. But still. I’ve had the long summer break just about my whole life and I love it, even as it has made many of my non-teacher friends insanely jealous. (But they have their revenge when I’m putting together Holiday Shows and Spring Concerts while they’re clocking 9 to 5 and come home without their work.)

Of course, these days, summer is not exactly long, lazy days where the main event is buttering corn and salting tomatoes. I always allow a week or so at the family Lake Michigan retreat to keep in touch with “real summer” and it’s lovely. But generally, I’m teaching Orff courses and weirdly, often in places with dubious summer weather. Last year was Brazil, where it was winter, in Salzburg it rains often and Madrid is hot, but without the beach. And then three weeks in San Francisco where the out-of-towners are at first charmed and then quickly fed-up with fog, fog and then—more fog. “What’s the point of walking the beach in blue jeans and sweatshirts?” they ask and I can only agree. But hey, it’s summer! “No more homework, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks!” Well, not quite true. We give homework in our Orff course, ask students to read our books and bend a nail on our xylophone and we will give you a look!

But all of this is down the line. Today will be the staff-8th grade basketball game, farewell lunch with our school tradition of mud-pie desserts, with the special song the kids have to sing (1 mudpie, 2 mudpies, 3 mudpies, 4 mudpies, 5 mudpies, 6 mudpies, 7 mudpies, Yum! Ice cream, sauce and oreos, oreos, oreos, Ice cream, sauce and oreos, chocalate, chocolate, chocolate, Yum!: etc.).  Then the kids look down at their mudpie and sit for 30 seconds of complete stillness—one move and I snatch their mud-pie away. This is an event to behold. Next comes the closing ceremony, always with song (Side by Side, Que Será, Summertime, etc.) and closing remarks. Each teacher speaks about their class and officially rings them up to the next grade on our ceremonial Balinese gongs. Then the youngest and oldest child in the school, who rang the gongs to start the year back in September, ring them again (much more sonorous than my harsh Harrison School 3 o’clock bell). When the last vibration fades into the 190-kid silence, school is out! But no jumping off the steps yet—first the hug-line outside, where every child hugs every teacher before going off into Summer. (Nervous about making this public— the Limiters may sniff us out and send Child-Protective Services to forbid this practice).

That’s how we will end school today, as we have done so many years before. Still 8th grade graduation tomorrow and two days of meetings before it’s really done and have I mentioned that I’m not finished with report cards yet? But I’m giving myself permission to leap off the steps into summer— something I now can only do metaphorically without hurting my ankle. But it’s just as sweet and delicious now as it was 50 years ago.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Whatever It Takes

Whatever it takes. That’s the implicit motto of the SF School music department—James, Sofia and myself. No one put it on our contract, no one is clocking our hours and making sure we’re financially compensated and certainly no one is telling us to slow down and not work so hard. It just arose out of our mutual commitment and dedication to do whatever needs to be done to walk the full length of the path we chose. (Or perhaps the path chose us because it saw we were willing to do the work?) It comes from what Daniel Pink (see his new book Drive) calls “intrinsic motivation” and the pleasure of doing what we love.

But as we all know, love is sometimes far too demanding and needy and will set unreasonable expectations without apology. Was that why I was a pole-vaulter in high school? (And broke the school record, I might add!) Some part of me knew the bar was going to be too high for my own two legs to straddle and I was going to need some help. It was exhilarating to speed down the runway, plant that pole, pull and gracefully soar over the bar to land in the soft-pillowed bed of congratulations. But my legs don’t run quite so fast these days, my arms are not quite as strong as they once were and my back is dubious from loading all these instruments into the van.

I look back with longing at these earlier blogs and my travel and teaching. Each and every day, there was a human-size proportion of tasks to be completed and time to savor and enjoy. These past two months have been an Olympian-size list on the shoulders of us mere mortals in the music department—and it ain’t over yet.

Consider: In the past four weeks alone, after returning from teaching at the weekend Orff retreat, we have mounted two Spring concerts with 190 children, which means not only making sure every child has a significant part to play and is clear about the music, the instruments played, the choreography, the transitions on and off stage, but also that we are clear about each detail, remember to pack each of some 100 instruments down to the triangle beater and snare drum brush. With help from some parents and kids (but the burden on us), we load the 17-foot U-haul at school, unload at the theater, load again after the concert, unload at school, just in time for Grandparent’s Day the next day, where select groups will perform again.

The next week is turning the music room into a recording studio and trying to get the perfect take of each of some 70 pieces. Then comes the hours in the studio listening and splicing and working out the order and making the liner notes with cover art for our 26th school double CD. After checking the final master and liner notes, it’s off to the duplication place to complete the process.

Meanwhile, we’re rehearsing with the Salzburg group on Sundays, organizing that concert, performing that concert (thanks to all that came!) along with the mandatory four-van loads, attending to the considerable details of taking 17 Middle School kids to Europe under our watch. Meanwhile, we’re also attending to the details of hosting our summer SF Orff Course, where some 200 people come from around the world to study with us. Meanwhile, we’re checking in on the Finland, Italy, Spain and Salzburg summer courses we’re teaching in. Meanwhile, we’re trying to get Sofia’s new book fully born into the world, with all the business details that involves. And meanwhile, we’re teaching our regular classes at the school, going to meetings, preparing report cards, taking the 4th graders to sing for the seniors at the Jewish Home, coming into the pre-school potluck to sing with parents. Meanwhile, we’re ticking off and adding to the lists of all the “meanwhiles” before summer snatches us away and whispers into our ear, “Breathe.”

I’m not asking for sympathy or adoration here (well, maybe a little of both), but the next time people tell me how lucky I am to do such fun work and get to travel and teach and enjoy the satisfaction of playing and singing and dancing with all kinds of people of all ages in all places, I still will agree wholeheartedly. But like anything worthwhile, it is a luck born from hard, hard work that is demanding, relentless and at times, more weight than the human frame can carry. I wouldn’t necessarily wish it on anyone.

Now that I got that off my chest, it’s back to report cards.