Sunday, January 29, 2012

Live at the Vanguard

Stepping through the small red door was like passing through the portals into the underworld. Not the Hades of perpetual torture, but some soulful heavenly realm where devilish angels armed with horns, skins, sticks and strings gave voice to the passions, thoughts and feelings forbidden above ground. Back in the day, the ticket price was a vulnerable heart and lots of second-hand smoke. The smoke is gone, but the music that plucks the strings unstrummed in the workaday world above lives on— welcome to The Village Vanguard Jazz Club.

I had stepped through these doors first in my imagination, escorted by the stereo speakers. Such incredible jazz history pressed onto vinyl—Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard, John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and other giants who a half-century ago stooped to enter through the same door and work their juju magic. And in my more CD recent collection, Bill Charlap, Fred Hersch, Mary Stallings, Josh Redman and more.

So here I was, walking down those steps into yesterday’s history, today’s pleasure and tomorrow’s promise. Once seated, I looked at the photos on walls, a veritable Who’s Who of jazz history. And more. Max Gordon first opened the club in 1935 and for many years featured musicians as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Burl Ives. It’s a small, intimate place, seating no more than 125 and you can’t help but feel the presence of all the great musicians and magical nights that had happened here in the past 75 years soaked into the walls and hovering in the air. When the musicians on stage strike the first note, they’re playing the next note in a decades-long ongoing composition, with the ancestors listening from their perch in the other world.

And so when Barry Harris, the 83-year old grand master and beloved teacher of jazz piano sat down and plunked the first rich chord of an evening of jazz standards, the magic began anew. In the audience were folks of all ages, including some 10-year old girls in the front row, while Mr. Harris toured us through the glories of a jazz standard repertoire with his trio, connecting each piece with a little story-patter that ended in the next song’s title. Near the end of his set, he told a tale about cloning and invited up his personal clone, a 14-year old piano student of his who now can put “played at the Village Vanguard” on his resume. The young man played well and to see the two standing together so proudly at the end would melt even the hardest heart. Mr. Harris bravely and publicly proclaiming that the show will go on beyond the lifespan of any one musician and that it is our responsibility and pleasure to pass it on to the young folks.

Since I had just come from giving a workshop to some 90 music teachers on the same theme, this touched me even more deeply. My workshop dealt, as it always does, with releasing the group community spirit of our collective musical intelligence before the kids choose their specific path and sit down for the private lesson. This particular group of New York teachers jumped into the games and songs with great gusto and spirit and we spanned the ages from babies to seniors, moved from protest songs to lullabies, played some intriguing music from the Philippines and some swingin’ beginning jazz. At one point I commented, “Sometimes this kind of work is more jazz than jazz!”

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Barry Harris asked the audience for three numbers between 1 and 8, constructed a melody from the answer (4-6-2) that grew in front of our ears into a full-fledged tune with beautiful harmonies, and asked us to sing along. Between the spirit of instant composition and audience involvement, he embodies everything I’m aiming for—enough hard work and discipline to be able to craft such a composition on the spot and enough spontaneity, community spirit and flexibility to include it in a concert.

From the workshop venue to the historic jazz club, the lovely solos of music teachers on glockenspiels to the beautiful re-workings of jazz standards by Mr. Barry Harris and Co., it was a day worth marking on the calendar. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Next President?

I was on a tight schedule to catch my plane and the cab was five minutes late. I’m standing on the sidewalk outside of school with 70 beautiful preschoolers walking by for the fire drill. Each one breaking the code of fire drill silence to greet me with their smiling face and little burst of enthusiasm —“It’s Doug!” With such love, how could I not wake up each day eager to go to work? And I do. But at this moment, all my attention is looking down the empty street waiting for the flash of a yellow car to reassure me that I’ll make my plane.

It arrives just at the moment I take out my secret cell phone to call the cab company. I start the ride down the freeway annoyed, but within five minutes, realize I had won the lottery of cab drivers, one of those referred to in the popular wisdom, “If the cab drivers and barbers ran the country, we’d be in great shape.”

He started with noting I taught at a school and off he went: “Man, it is shameful the way they keep cutting funds to education. Ain’t nothin’ more important. But the s.o.b.’s take money away and outsource the jobs so the young people have no choices left except join the army and fight in their wars.” And good morning to you!

“Well,” I rejoined, “Some make these bad decisions out of ignorance and some just because they have money and their kids are in the good schools, so what do they care? And yeah, you don’t see too many sons and daughters of the warmakers signing up to enlist.”

“Some of my fellow cab drivers are worried that we’re going to start bombing their countries, but I tell them not to worry, ain’t gonna happen until after the election. We start dropping bombs on Iran, price of oil goes up and the voters get mad. Politicans can huff and puff all they want about freedom and all that crap, but it’s all about the almight Buck. Always has been and always will be.

“The politicians don’t run things anyway. With 24,000 lobbyists in Washington, they’re all just puppets of the big money corporations. Makes no different who we vote for— both the Democrats and Republicans suck. Only difference is that the Republicans got teeth, so it hurts.”

Like I said, this was an interesting cab ride!

“My kids doing all right. Both went to Lowell (a high-achieving public school in SF) and my daughter’s in Stanford. I just made sure that I was there to help them through their schoolwork when they were kids and it paid off. My son is not only smart, but an entrepreneur. He’s trying to sell my sperm on E-Bay using himself as an example of product reliability—‘Hey! Look how good I turned out!'

“Anyway, I didn’t have to read books on how to raise my kids. Just used my common sense. Ain’t nothin’ so uncommon these days as common sense.”

It was about then, a couple of miles from the airport, that he noticed he forgot to turn on the meter. “Well, heck, it’s usually around $30, but you’re a teacher, let’s just say $25.” I had done this ride enough to know that this was indeed in the ballpark and not only got to the airport in time, but had the treat of an engaging conversation. Was close to asking his name to find out when he would run for President, but when he started talking about how much he liked Howard Stern, he lost my vote.

Still, I think we should try out a new idea this Election year—only barbers and taxi drivers can run for office. Heck, couldn’t be any worse than it is and just possibly a whole lot better. The only rule is they’d have to keep working part-time in their profession. That way, they keep in touch with people and we keep in touch with them. Imagine a haircut or cab ride where you got to talk about the cuts in education with someone who could actually do something about it.

Think about it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Confessions of a Seinfeldholic

The unimaginable has happened. After some 13 years of nightly re-runs, Seinfeld has been permanently sent out to the pastures of TV history. How will I survive? Truth be told, that half-hour 7:30 –8:00 fix became a necessary method of shedding the day’s accumulated stresses and shoring me up to meet the tasks of the evening. Sure, it always created some tension around dinner— would the meal be finished and the dishes cleared in time? And yes, some episodes I knew by heart and eventually chose to skip over. And even with the mute button, the commercials were unbearable. But still.

No TV show in history has ever hit so many nerves of those tiny things that we all notice and experience—waiting in restaurants, the difference between first class and coach flights, going to the baby shower, looking for your car in the parking garage, breaking up with the girlfriend/boyfriend. How many times have I been in a group where someone references a Seinfeld episode in discussing an experience? Even at the recent poetry retreat of the erudite David Whyte, he referred to the Soup Nazi while telling a story.

So I guess it’s time to say goodbye to the Soup Nazi, Poppy, J. Peterman, the Bubble Boy, Art Vandelay and the whole cast of colorful characters. The references to double-dipping, being sponge-worthy, muffin tops, puffy shirts and more may live beyond the demise of re-runs, but will eventually go the way of all mortal creations and fade in memory. I was consistently taken by the tightly-woven plots, as many as four strands coming together (the connection between the golf ball, the whale and the “marine biologist” amongst the most brilliant of many), came to love the characters, even as they stood opposed to the kind of caring I care about (again brilliant exposed in the episode about the do-gooder alternative-reality Seinfeld characters who were excruciatingly boring). I’ll miss them all, but hey, I guess it was time to move on.

And now I have 30 more minutes a night to… well, I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Overactive Mirror Neurons

I could never be a sports fan. Especially since my pre-frontal lobes developed and my mirror neurons kicked in big time. Mirror neurons are responsible for the way the baby sticks it tongue out back at you or the way one person crying in a group sets off others to do the same. It is the neurology of compassion and empathy, an interior physical response in our body that is triggered simply by watching others who are having the actual physical or emotional experience.

My mirror neurons appear to be overactive. I suffer from OMN. Out of loyalty and some feeling that it would be fun on a rainy day, I sat down to enjoy the 49’ers playoff game. But by halftime, I realized that I had spent a good hour twitching, twisting, grunting, shouting, recoiling as if someone had punched me. My mirror neurons were firing on all cylinders and by the end of the first half, I was exhausted. Had people looked in the window without seeing the TV screen, they might have called 911, thinking I was having some bizarre kind of seizure. And it’s all because of my overactive mirror neurons.

In the second half, I tried something new. Instead of merely responding to the action on the field, I lifted my hands and tried to guide it, showing before the play just where the pass would be completed, the run made or the tackle accomplished. Somehow these focused intentions made it through the screen and onto the playing field because things started picking up for the 49’ers and I don’t mind taking the credit. I even tried to influence the instant replay and push the ball away from the knee of number 10 to change the ruling on the Giants getting the ball, but my powers could only go so far. But once again, the peeping Tom in the window might have reported me to Cult-watch as my hands tried to guide the players to touchdown glory.

If I was so foolish as to become a routine sports fan, I’m sure I would age as fast as the people leaving Shangri-la in Lost Horizon. I just get too involved. Of course, when my team wins, it means my euphoria is directly proportionate to my anguish. But as a Buddhist striving for equanimity and non-attachment, this is not good for my practice. Well, it could be the ultimate test, but I think if Buddha lived in San Francisco, even he would jump up after that 73-yard touchdown or shout in disbelief at the fumble that led to the Giants’ field goal.

At any rate, I’m loyal to my city’s teams and sad for the 49’ers, but my nervous system is relieved that it doesn’t have to watch the Super Bowl. At least until next year. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Raise High the Roof Beam

Old Man Mosie, Sick in the head
Called for the doctor and the doctor said.
Please step forward, turn around.
Do the Hokey Pokey and get out of town.

I’ve never been a big fan of therapy. I’ve often felt that it admits the failure of a circle of listening friends who will listen for free. It puts too much weight on our personal problems when part of our issue is cultural and collective. It tries to fill the gap of the shaman who will sing you through your suffering and call on helpers from the invisible world (often not invited into the therapist’s office).

Consider. Someone feels disconnected, alone, at dis-ease with the demands of the world, their own body, their own feelings. But before they lie down on the couch to talk about their mother, it might help to realize that they live in a place with ten bolts on the door next to neighbors they don’t know. They sit on a trafficked freeway listening to the news of the current war or murder or bill taking money away from children’s schools, or commute on a crowded train or bus where no one talks to each other, instead buried in their text messages or plugged into their private listening station. They work in some cubicle in some office with forced air sitting in front of screens all day doing work they don’t particularly care about. Back home way too late, pick up some fast-food cooked in greasy vats with no care or love, plop down in front of the TV and watch Judge Judy. Four more days and then it’s the big shopping trip down the strip mall to Walmart or Costco, pick up the magazine at the counter to see how Brittany or Jennifer are doing, home at night to tune into the circus of the Republican primaries, people vying to be leaders of the once almightiest nation who can barely speak English and have the emotional maturity of a troubled 6th grader. Need we wonder why they feel “sick in the head?”

Along comes Old Man Mosie’s doctor, who wisely advises:
1.     Step out of your limited point of view. Get out of the rut you’ve made for yourself.
2.     Turn around, like the Shakers turning to “come round right,” the dog in front of the fire, the Sufi whirling dervishes finding their still center in the swirling movement. Look what’s behind you and around you.
3.     Dance! The Hokey Pokey, salsa, contra-dance, tango—whatever! Get the body moving, especially with other people, feel the healing power of rhythm, get the heart pumping and the breath alive.
4.     Get out of town! Travel, see other places, get new perspectives, whether on a bike or train or in your imagination through the power of reading.
5.     Then come back and we can talk about your mother.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to discount the entire profession of therapy. We indeed have hidden patterns that work against our own best interest and in the hands of a skilled, caring therapist, can begin to discover and reveal the things that block us and inch our fragmented self toward some hope of wholeness. But the issues are always larger than our own personal world—there are collective forces at work that also need our attention. What good is it to be whole and well in a sick world?

We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Therapy and the World is Getting Worse is a book co-written by one of the most brilliant minds of our times, a therapist who constantly challenged his own profession to widen its perspective and bring world, imagination, art, mythology, nature, culture into the conversation. A man who delved with the full radiance of his mind and breathtaking articulation of his language into such areas as the soul, aging, men’s issues, poetry, dreams, as well as the difficult places of suicide and “our terrible love of war.” Wherever he turned his attention, he brought light into the dark corners of the subject, always taking reality on its own terms as a starting point and probing for the meaning of each facet of its display. He was a translator, interpreting and finding words for the esoteric languages of our behaviors, our symptoms, nature’s workings, nurture’s effects.

In the past twenty years, I went to bookstores awaiting the next publication by this author the same way I used to await the next Gary Snyder book of poetry, Barbara Kingsolver novel, Keith Jarrett recording. I heard him speak live on many occasions and listened to him on tapes/CD’s on many a long car ride. He was a feisty person to interview, turning the questions back to the interviewer and exposing their shaky assumptions. The sharpness of his intellect cut like a sword through murky thinking, always with an impassioned energy and ultimately jovial embrace behind the edge of his complaints. 

His name was James Hillman.

Imagine my surprise when I found out accidentally in conversation that he had passed away at 85 years old a few months back in October. How did I miss that news? And why wasn’t it worthy of national attention? And so I imagine the carpenters in the other world “raising high the roof beam” to allow him to pass through. At a time at school when I’m reading to the kids a picture book titled “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” I would hope that a future edition include James Hillman. He didn’t give up his work to feed the poor with Mother Theresa or put on combat fatigues with the next Che Guevara, but within his chosen profession as a Jungian analyst, worked tirelessly to bring conversations up to the next needed level, speaking the truth as he saw it.

Amongst his many books are the collection of poetry inspired by the “men’s movement,” The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, (written along with his friends Robert Bly and Michael Meade), The Force of Character dealing with aging, his difficult last book, The Terrible Love of War and what I consider one of the most remarkable of his or anyone’s books and one that landed him on Oprah—The Soul’s Code. 

This last book is a modern re-interpretation of an ancient understanding that we are born with an invisible twin, a daimon who presents the central image of our incarnation, our particular purpose for being born, and if we pay attention properly, guides us to fulfill it. Hillman challenges the Freudian idea that we adults are dealing with the psychological fall-out of our childhood experiences and traumas that shaped us into who we are and suggests that life is lived backwards, that our childhood helps reveal the image we are moving toward that is present with us at our birth. He gives an example of how classical psychology interprets the shy boy named Manolete as becoming a bullfighter to compensate for his childhood shyness. Instead he suggests that as a child, Manolete already knew his destiny and wouldn’t you be hiding behind your mother’s skirts if you knew a ferocious bull awaited you some years down the line?

Hillman’s range and depth of ideas were so large and all-encompassing that my hope of including quotes and such in this modest memorial simply can’t happen in this small Blog format. So for now, 9 bows to this man who elevated intellect one notch higher, always keeping it connected to heart and soul and culture and caring. Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. A great man is passing through. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bad Mama

Just about anyone with aging parents knows intimately how the cliché of life’s cycle rings so clearly true. The parents who changed our diaper, fed us, supported us while we walked, soothed our aches and pains, tried to understand our babbled speech, are now at the other end of life’s journey needing the same from us.

Take today, for example. Remember my song a few postings ago about spending 3rd grade as a bad boy out in the hall? Occasionally, it was severe enough that my parents had to be called and brought in. Today, I got such a call from the Jewish Home from an employee at his wit’s end with my mother’s angry behavior—shouting and screaming and kicking. (My mother, that is.) So I was called in and found her—guess where?—sitting out in the hall. Ah, familiar territory. She was pouting much as I used to and now it was my turn to find out what happened and remind her to be nice.

“Let’s get out of here!” she strongly suggested after a brief talk and off we went to the café. I got her some hot tea and a spoon and she settled down, warmed on this cold winter’s day by the tea and soothed by the simple act of sipping. Then she turned to me and commented, “It pays to have children. They really come in handy.”

That was her unique style of appreciating that I was there to bring her tea, ready, able and willing to pay her back for the peanut butter sandwiches she used to leave for me in the milk-box when I came home and she was out. I thought of the marvelous poem by Billy Collins, where he is convinced as a boy that making a lanyard for his Mom at summer camp was more than sufficient repayment for her having birthed, nurtured and raised him. (Look it up—The Lanyard.) Really, how can one possibly repay our parents for their hard work, sacrifice, dedication and long-term commitment? And don’t get me wrong—I’m well aware that there are far too many tragic stories of the parents who failed to measure up to their responsibility and left their children devastated. I imagine those folks are not thinking of how to lavish their parents with tender loving care—though given enough inner work and the capacity for forgiveness and compassion, perhaps they might.

But from the injunction to “Honor thy father and mother” to the simplest precepts of Gratitude 101, it is a rare opportunity, a privilege and often a pleasure to feed, massage, offer a hand while sitting and an arm while walking to our aging parents. After our cup of tea, I wheeled my mother over to the piano, sat down to play and asked “What would you like to hear?”

Without skipping a beat, she answered, “That you love me.”

Easier words were never spoken. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Freedom Bound

I keep thinking about the five-year old child’s question—“What is freedom anyway?” (See "Out of the Mouths of Babes" posting.) On Martin Luther King day, a good moment to pause and consider. One of my favorite definitions: “My freedom to extend my arm goes as far as your face.” That takes care of all those self-absorbed “you can’t take away my SUV!!” interpretations. We’re living together on a crowded planet and we are free up to the limit of causing harm. Of course, just being alive causes harm—ask your local cow, mosquito or parent. Thus, true freedom is always bound within our interdependent co-existence. Those bound for freedom must accept the boundaries within which freedom operates.

This is the kind of thing a teacher needs to figure out running the community of a classroom. Kids come to school free in their young innocence and we teach them to line up and raise their hand and why not? It helps things run smoothly and when well-done, such social amenities are like a beautiful choreographed dance. Steps are proscribed, but for a purpose. And maybe there is a place to break out and do your thing.

The 60’s had many marvelous things to offer, but the reaction to the emotional, bodily and political repression of the 50’s swung the pendulum too far to the side of “whatever.” I worked in several of the dubiously named “free schools” and quickly discovered that no rules could become a greater tyranny than too many rules and stunt children’s growth even more. Free jazz musicians discovered that after the exhilaration of freedom from chords, scales, set rhythms, came the longing for the structures that gave shape and deeper expression. And if they didn’t, their listeners certainly did!

The Zen master I have studied with worked in the early ‘70’s with many of the hippies who got to the end of the road of their “do your thing” freedom and still hungered for more. Zen practice is perhaps one of the most outwardly rigid forms, with strict schedules, proscribed motions for walking, eating, entering a room, two or three choices of meditation posture and no wiggle room. Sorry your legs hurt, but ain’t no one movin’ until the bell rings—and I have a stick to whack you if you do. But unlike a strictly military discipline, the aim is liberation of the spirit and you quickly discover that the dance of the schedule helps you to fly while seated on the cushion. And in your daily interviews with the Roshi, he gives you full freedom to express yourself to answer your given question (koan). Amazing how often you discover that you have nothing worthy to say. Back to the pillow! And so our quest for freedom turned out to be so much more complex than we thought!

It goes without saying that freedom’s first step is towards choice, the possibility, privilege and right of self-determination, freedom to define oneself, freedom to walk the full measure of your dreams without the world slamming doors in your face. But it’s just possible that the last step of freedom is no choice. We are bound by the limits of our bodies, by organic cycles of growth and decay, by gravity, DNA and other stark realities of the physical world. And then come all the forces that shape us in the course of a life— the upbringing by our parents, the brain’s synaptic connections that get made by our choices and experience, the schools and places of worship we attend, the cultures we inherit—in short, the whole catastrophe. How can we talk about freedom in the face of all these pushes and pulls? What is the actual range of our choices?

The urge to escape the things that seem to limit us, our struggle to push against our constraints, is one of the great dramas of this life. But in the end, we must always submit to both our particular and our universal boundaries to find freedom within the limitations, As Rumi put it, “your boundaries are your quest.”

Perhaps freedom is not so much choosing what you do, but working on how you do it, with the full measure of your attention, awareness, imagination, talent and commitment. That’s why Duke Ellington was freer than the hotel owners who refused him a room, Miles Davis freer than the policeman who pulled him over for the crime of being black and driving a nice car.

And so a nod to the national hero of this day, Dr. Martin Luther King, who apprenticed himself to the most difficult freedom of all, the conquering of hate through love. Tomorrow, 190 children in my school will sing his praises and be encouraged to dedicate themselves to a path of freedom longer, more rigorous and steeper than they can ever imagine in their young innocent lives. Of course, mostly they will be worried that the ceremony might spill over into their recess. But one hopes that the spirit we will stir in that room will echo down the years to keep them company. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Church of No Dogma

Every day I go to church. Or more accurately, several churches. One is the place where kids push drums around with mallets on the floor, leap over them, balance them on their heads, dance with their drum-face masks and then while putting on their shoes at the end of class exclaim, “That was more fun than throwing up!” Another is a place where ivory, felt and steel type out messages to the gods and occasionally get their call returned. Yet another is sitting on a round cushion walking up and down the hills of the breath until the name of the breather is slowly erased.

This weekend, I went to another church with some 200 people to hear the “Reverend” David Whyte. “Reverend” not by official title (he would never call himself that and nobody else does either), but earned as someone revered by those who like their religion without theology. The admission fee in his Church of Poetic Imagination is neither faith nor belief nor strict adherence to moral codes nor Guru worship and adoration (though many tempted to the latter—the man is both eloquent and handsome!)— it is simply attention to the worlds we inhabit, the ones inside the body-mind and the ones outside and the invitation to inhabit them more fully. The worship service is finding the words that point to possibility, that strive to speak what the heart already knows, that aim to awaken our slumbering promise and bring it out stretching and yawning into the light for all to see. Poetry and some song was the vehicle for this weekend’s retreat, but whether words or images or dance steps or sounds artfully combined, it is a house where each speaks in their own voice and leaves their dogma tied up outside.

My own brief disappointment as a child with the more popular version of church came from observing how easy it is to inherit a ready-made religion and miss the more-difficult work of religion’s origin, our hunger for the sacred. The etymological root of the word combines “Re” from return with “ligare,” from “to bind.” Bind can be interpreted negatively, as in tied up with ropes, or positively, linked with “bonding,” re-making the connection with our source, our spiritual center, our true-nature. (Or re-bound— the ball of our life is thrown up to the basket, misses the hoop and we must jump up and firmly grab it, dribble about and look for the moment to shoot and make the point. Come join my Church of Basketball!)

But what I noticed as a kid was how I and others could sleep through the service, mouth the words to the prayers, sing the songs with our throats only, drop a coin in the plate, put on the photo-fake smile for our neighbor and go out the door of the church exactly the same person as we went in. The rituals so quickly became rote routine, the theology and dogma shields to hide our hurting hearts, the quick confessions and absolutions an easy two-step step around our own accountability, the moral finger-wagging a cheap shot that missed our real shame. It was either too pleasant or too hell-firish. But on a good day in the church of poetry, we should feel, as Emily Dickinson said, “as if the top of our heads were taken off.”

The church that I was looking for was one where the songs are cranked up to Gospel and the silences so deep and holy that I could both hear the song of the blackbird out the window and the whisper of the voice in my ear drowned out by the rush and commotion of the world. The place where I needn’t learn someone else’s 2,000 year-old-story, but listen for my own story in the greater scheme of things. And so I set off to find the churches that fit me and every single one that has felt right is one that puts me face-to-face with both my lifelong dreams and aspirations and my lifelong habits of avoiding them and excusing myself from pursuing them. And that’s what a weekend like this is for—to remind us to get back on track and keep sniffing.

Mr. Whyte has done some remarkable work here, first keeping a constant conversation with his own soul and then finding the words to exclaim it and then finding the way to deliver it so that 200 people listening think, “How can he know that about me? What he just said is exactly my situation!” Reciting some of the several hundred poems he has memorized, his own and others’, reading some of his new work, telling marvelous stories with great humor and insight, giving us time to talk to neighbors about what renewal of vows the poems inspire and giving helpful details about the nuances of a life lived at the frontier between our knowing and our next step into the unknown, he affirmed us, challenged us, uplifted us, called us to task gently but firmly. One man at the end read a lovely poem back to the Mr. Whyte thanking him for being the defense lawyer for his (the man's) neglected promise. I believe most people left that church a different person than when they walked in. 

I know I did. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes

It’s that time of year again. The moment to take out the old melodious chestnuts from the 60’s that inspired us and kept us moving one little step towards freedom even if police with billy clubs were blocking the way. Yes, Martin Luther King Day is upon us and as I wrote last year around this time, it’s a wonder to behold kids as young as 3 years old belting out “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty I’m free at last!” with such passion and gusto. In fact, today I was in the middle of singing “If I Had a Hammer” with 75 preschoolers when I simply had to stop singing, alternately laughing and crying in front of the whole crowd. The cause? One four-year old singing with her eyes closed and lips puckered and such innocence and beauty and spirit shining out in her face that it struck me to the core. At once cute and about the realest thing I’ve seen lately in a community of adults throwing around stale words to avoid hard truths.

Yep, there is still big trouble in Camelot, but in some weird way, I’m thankful. This year singing these songs with the 8th graders and 6th graders and telling the story of how each one is an arrow aimed to burst the frozen heart or penetrate the thick wall of denial, a flower growing up through the cracks in the concrete, a tsunami of love to make hate turn on its heels and run, a well-spoken word that suddenly throws the light on ignorance— pick your metaphor, they’re all true—this year, it all had a special meaning. Without having to name names or point fingers, the songs both helped me sing out our collective troubles in public and also connect with the kids in a profound way. For these kids, who feel injustice so deeply and are starved for something real and authentic, rose to the bar of the repertoire’s passion and sometimes leaped over. My classes the past few days, in company with my singing colleagues, have been like a thunderclap that helped burst the tension of an intolerable situation and cleared the way for some healing rain to fall.

Then there were the five-year olds, singing, dancing and acting out a perfect five-year old song by Reggie and Kim Harris—“One Little Step Towards Freedom.” We were all having so much fun and yet again, a visitor walking into the room who was even half-alive would have to stop and notice—“Wow!! There’s some strong spirit present in this room!” So that made it all the more hilarious when one of the kids raised his hand and asked, “What is freedom anyway?”

Whoah! That’s a showstopper. You assume the kids are connecting the words with the energy, but of course, they’re mostly not. For one thing, as any parent, teacher and neuroscientist can tell you, the young brain is all concrete nouns and action verbs. Abstract concepts like freedom, democracy and justice are too large too fit on the narrow roads of the young brain’s synapses. It’s the music’s rhythm and melody that is penetrating past the verbal brain and to the core of the young child’s spirit. They get the message in their heart before they understand in their head.

But now I was obliged to answer him. “Hmm, that’s a very good question, “ I said in teacherese, stalling for time while my brain searched for a five-year old image. “Does any one else know?” (Another great strategy for passing the buck under the guise of Socratic Dialogue.) “It’s a person!” offered one. “No, not exactly.” “It’s like when you get out of jail, then you’re free.” “Okay, now we’re getting closer. In jail, you can’t go where you want—there are big bars to stop you and keep you locked up. You can’t do what you want or say what you want. You’re not free.” A couple of semi-nodding heads. “And sometimes people can be in a different kind of jail, where bad ideas are like bars that keep them from being free.” By now, some kids are rolling on the floor, the kid who asked the question is chewing his sock, the perfect line we had looks like cooked spaghetti, all childrenese for “Doug, you’ve gone too far here.” So back to singing passionately about freedom while visions of escaped convicts danced in their heads.

And with the older kids, as the topic comes up, I always pause before explaining how indeed one group of people denied another group the freedom to go certain places, do certain things, didn’t give them the chance to define themselves and claim their own identity. Looking at the beautiful faces in all shades of color in the 4th grade and everyone enjoying each other —or not—precisely for “the content of their character,” I both felt what steps toward freedom have indeed been taken, even as there are many left to go. And yet again, I feel somehow telling the story will help erase the final bars that keep us apart, even as it brings up the idea to kids who perhaps had never even considered it. But who knows.

One final image. I had the 4th graders split into small groups to make a musical realization of a Langston Hughes poem, one of three about his dreams— dreams that should be wrapped up in a “blue cloud cloth” to be kept away from the “too-rough fingers of the world.” Ah, there’s a useful image for what I’m after, protecting that innocence while telling the truth. At one point, one white boy and one black boy sitting across from each other, got in a power struggle over whose xylophone part they both must play. One (rightly) noted that the two patterns didn’t fit together. And so, unbeknownst to me, they decided to have a staring contest. Here in this exercise dedicated to truth and understanding and beautiful music, I looked over and saw these two boys glaring at each other. Not exactly what I hoped for! But I had the sense to just watch for awhile and sure enough, it ended in one of them starting to laugh and then both collapsing in giggles and getting on with their piece.

So back to “what is freedom anyway?” A worthy question for a word that rivals “awesome” as the most misused, abused, overused word in the English language. But I will claim my freedom to simply say, “I’ll get back to you on that one.” Suddenly dinner seems more important. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Love Letter to My Readers

Today marks the one-year anniversary of “Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher.” On Tuesday, January 11, 2011, I wrote my first Blog, singing out an electronic “Funga Alafia” about to begin my Asian Orff travels in Korea. How I loved keeping a public journal while continuing through to Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Hong Kong. A brief stop back in San Francisco and then I was off to Salzburg. And then returning home in April, my travels done, lo and behold! the Blog continued. “It’s all travel” I thought to myself and so it is and so I continued. And here it is, one year and 200 Blog entries later.

So I’m breaking out the virtual champagne and raising my glass to you, my invisible community of readers. Most writers write out of compulsion, some inmost need to shape thoughts, record experience, get bothersome ideas out of their head to leave room for something else. On some level, a reader is a bonus. On another, the reader completes the cycle— it is not enough to write just for oneself and behind it all lies a hope that one’s words and experiences will resonate with someone else, touch someone else and just generally, as the Quakers say, “speak to their condition.” The most satisfying complement that I occasionally receive from a reader is “You’ve articulated what I’ve felt.”

The fact that I’ve grown to 46 “followers” (still not clear what this means— simply that the Blog has been bookmarked?) and that the stats tell me that the site has been opened 11, 369  times since my first entry means that someone out there is reading this. And to you all, I again raise my glass and say, “Thank you.”

Occasionally, people have used the Comment option (mostly my daughter!) and that’s fun to see which postings tickle folks’ fancies. And some have told me that they tried to comment and that it didn’t work. Many comments on a Blog could be fun, creating a more interactive community of readers. But it could also be too much time online and make me vulnerable to vicious attack!

So, dear reader, I have a humble request. On the occasion of this one-year anniversary, would you care to write a general comment to me and send it to It could be a mention of a few favorite Blogs or a few favorite topics or even suggestions for future topics. You might help me solve the technical Comment problem—have you tried to send one that didn’t work? You can explain to me what a Follower is. If I don’t already know you, you could introduce yourself. You could suggest prizes for people who pass these blogs on to friends (or enemies?). You could help me decide whether Blog should be capitalized or not.

Whether or not you choose to take time from your busy day to write, I thank you again for encouraging me to keep writing through the simple act of reading. Here’s to another year together!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Doug Diet: Part 2

All my adult life I refused to diet. Hated everything about it. I never wanted to think of food, our life-giving sustenance, as something I had to battle. I loathed the idea of treating Nature’s bounty as a mathematical problem. I got tired of hearing that suddenly X was going to kill you, only to find out a few years later that it was Y that was bad and X was actually good. I remained loyal to the carbohydrates who had served me faithfully for so many years and stubbornly refused to learn about trans-fats and anti-oxidants and the other nutritional mumbo-jumbo. I disdained our cultural obsession with weight and my anti-Puritan streak resisted the idea of denying myself culinary pleasure.

And so I went merrily on my way accepting whatever food appeared (except red meat and most fish, including tuna, that would have me selling my mother’s name to terrorists if they threatened to make me eat a mouthful). I happily shopped the ice cream aisle of Trader Joes (Coffee Blast!), saw no reason to resist the chocolate bar at the check-out counter, had granola (still home-made) and milk and banana for breakfast, grabbed crackers or treats at the school’s kitchen counter to fortify myself for my next class and decided not to join the Pastry Resistance League at our snack-provided staff meetings.
And while I was thumbing my nose at the notion of diet and culinary discipline, the numbers on the scale kept creeping up. As a public figure, I tried to hide it by never tucking in my shirt and privately tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid mirrors. But in my heart of hearts, I secretly envied members of my peer group who never had gained or suddenly lost weight, starting looking at men’s bellies as much as women’s bottoms (for a different reason.) Buying new pants was a torture and finally had to admit that the clothing companies had not inflated pants waist sizes. So every once in a while, I made some half-hearted attempts to do something.

“Exercise, that’s the key!” some people told me. But after two weeks of biking, swimming and hiking every day in Michigan and nary a pound dropped, I concluded, as any reasonable person would, “Science works for other people, but not for me.” So I gleefully ate as I always had and tried to justify it all philosophically, as we humans tend to do. “I’ll show them!” I thought as I enjoyed every bite of dubious (but delicious) foods. “Life’s too short not to treat yourself to chocolate.” Etc. Meanwhile, the numbers kept creeping up. Hiding the scale helped, but looking at photos did not.

So finally this Fall, the scale hit a number that alarmed me, a photo depressed me and I heard a program on the radio about eating well. So I had a long hard talk with myself and suggested to said self to try something different. And so I embarked on the Doug diet.

In my stubbornly independent way, I was determined to make it all up myself without a single calorie counted. First step was eating oatmeal every morning for breakfast with a few raisins (no milk, butter or brown sugar) and a half glass of orange juice. Second was to eat smaller portions and not have seconds. Third was to snack on apples and carrots instead of chocolate or chips. And finally, to eat more vegetables and whole grains. I never vowed to stop eating sugar, white bread, white rice, lots of cheese, etc., but found myself naturally eating much less of all of that. Though I had some hungry moments, mostly I found that my appetite changed and instead of the battle with craving, I simply lost the burning desire for these richer foods. It felt good not to be driven by appetite and still enjoy—indeed, savor more—everything I was eating.

But then came the crowning moment. Three weeks later, I ventured on to the scale and lo and behold! I had lost a few pounds. Science works! Encouragement from the numbers! Motivation to keep going—which I didn’t wholly need (see above), but it helped! And they dropped and dropped until, some 15 pounds lighter, I arrived at the weight on my driver’s license. Eating better, eating less, enjoying more and finally able to tuck in my shirt without shame. Sweet!

One thing that helped was having time off from school and yes, biking a lot didn’t hurt either. But the real test was how would this hold up traveling? Many fewer choices—kale is hardly the snack of choice at the airport! And how would it hold up at school, back in the workplace with the intensity of schedule I have? Not to mention the holidays, with treat after treat thrust at you from all sides. I know no one is sitting at the edge of their chair for the answer, but just to complete the thought— it has held up. So far.
So I feel a little pride that it all happened without joining a club or buying a book or following someone else’s diet regime— just good common sense. If I had to summarize the “Doug diet,” I’d have to credit Michael Pollan’s brilliant summary—“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” (“Food” meaning things with less than five ingredients that you can pronounce.)

Meanwhile, all these years that I imagined “if only I weighed ten pounds less.” What was I hoping for? That people would love me more? Respect me more? Admire me more? I can report with conviction that none of the above has happened. Indeed, most people didn’t notice and fewer cared to comment. I’m just happy to be eating better, feeling a bit lighter in my body, consuming less, tasting more and all of that is its own reward. No need to expect anything else, trumpet it out (beyond this posting), try to capture it and package it and sell it (though I admit that “the Doug diet” is kind of catchy).

After all the calories consumed sitting and writing this, it’s time to crunch a carrot.
Bon apetit!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Doug Diet: Part 1

When it came to health food, my Mom was ahead of her time. While my friends were merrily drinking soda with every meal, eating baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread, happily slurping the colored milk from Fruit Loops and topping it off with Oreos and Snickerdoodles, my sister and I drank milk and fruit juice, had Quaker oats or Shredded Wheat for breakfast, ate turkey on whole wheatish bread for lunch and dessert was whole wheat cookies with little ladders around the edges (don’t bother to look—this from a local bakery named Dugans). Every meal, I lined up an arsenal of vitamins, cultivating my visual spatial skills by arranging them in different patterns around the plate before the unpleasant task of swallowing these life-saving supplements.

My Mom was a devotee of Carlton Fredericks, a self-proclaimed expert on nutrition who had a radio show and wrote several books. He advocated for vitamins as necessary to offset the lost nutrients of over-processed foods, despised white bread and alerted the public to the dangers of hypoglycemia, a kind of reverse diabetes that my Mom either actually had or was led to believe she had. I hadn’t thought about Mr. Fredericks until this Blog’s theme popped up and so I dutifully clicked on the Google search. First entry was from a site called Quackwatch which was far from impressed with Carlton’s credentials. By the end, “nutritional charlatan” was pretty much the conclusion. Sorry, Mom!

Now don’t get me wrong. We were hardly eating tofu and stir-fried vegetables in 1950’s New Jersey. It was strictly meat, potatoes and over-cooked boiled vegetables. And when I was old enough to “cook” for myself and indeed, had to when my parents left me alone for two weeks in my junior year of high school, it was the glorified White-Castle’ish hamburger for breakfast known as Minute Steaks and a whole freezer of Swanson’s TV Dinners—fried chicken with potatoes, peas and carrots and a little apple turnover my all-time favorite, Salisbury steak second on my preferred list.

By college, I had moved from TV dinners to a loosely macrobiotic diet of brown rice, miso soup and such. Quite a switch! Now I had to cook in earnest and The Tassajara Bread Book was my steady companion—Tibetan barley bread, buckwheat rounds, whole wheat pancakes. From there, it was the vegetarian years, baking my own bread, sprouting Alfafa sprouts, culturing yogurt in the bathtub, making homemade granola and such. Diet for a Small Planet lay open on many of my kitchen counters and I still remember fondly Easy and Elegant Cheese Souffle and some soy bean casserole whose name escapes me.

The Community Food Stores (of which only Rainbow and Other Avenues remain in San Francisco) were my shopping digs, scooping out from big bins and sweeping the store before leaving. And then came the Moosewood years, which pretty much raised my children. They seemed perfectly content with their mostly vegetarian diet, but now, for reasons of marriage and location and perhaps repressed longings, they both are avid meat-eaters. Oh well.

My strict vegetarian years ended on a school camping trip with 60 kids. It was a cold and drizzly night and chicken was grilling while I sat huddled eating a cold potato salad with the smells of barbecue wafting to my nostrils. My ancient hunter and childhood meat genes kicked in— goodbye, vegetarianism, hello chickenatarianism. Just in time for my increased travel giving workshops. As a novice vegetarian in the 70’s, I traveled in an unfriendly Europe and kept my protein afloat with some disgusting yeast (not the later flake kind), whatever peanut butter I could find (not much) and more sensibly, French cheese. Later travels in India were a vegetarian Mecca—and passing the meat stalls with hanging carcasses, flies and no refrigeration made me grateful. Now adding chicken and turkey and shrimp and made traveling on planes and teaching in Europe in the 80’s and 90’s much easier. When turkey bacon and chicken sausages started appearing, my last regrets about a red-meatless diet disappeared and that’s how it has been ever since.

This is a glorious time to be a vegetarian— or close to it. Quinoa, risotto, cous-cous and more have joined brown rice, farmer’s markets are displaying a renaissance of vegetables—kale, poblano peppers, portabella mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, arrugula, words that I’m sure no one in New Jersey ever hear of 50 years ago—and the once exotic world cuisines (only Chinese restaurants in my childhood) are now commonplace—sushi, pad Thai, green tea salad, pupusas, paella, chile rellenos, etc. etc. —as American as apple pie. Backyard and community gardens are thriving and meat-eaters are killing their own turkeys and slaughtering hogs in neighborhood gatherings to be more honest and get closer to nature. Michael Pollan is the new Carlton Fredericks, only this time with real credentials.

And so it was in the midst of all this variety and plenty that in my 60th year, I decided to go on my first diet. Tune in tomorrow.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Facial Hair Intelligence

There are only three kinds of people in this world—those who are good at math and those who aren’t. (Always warm-up the audience with a joke! Ha ha!)

Amidst all the ways we classify people, I offer a new one here—those who recognize facial hair and those who don’t. Since I shaved my moustache, it has been fascinating to see the reaction—or lack of it.

I was a late shaver and once that facial hair starting appearing in college, I just let it freely express itself. It was, after all, the 60’s. (Well, actually, the early 70’s, but everyone knows that the 60’s were really from 1965-1975). Eventually, a fully formed beard emerged and kept me company until I turned 30. And then in a memorable event in northern Michigan, the only time my parents stayed at my in-laws cottage on the lake, I awoke early on the morning of my 30th birthday and had my father shave my beard. We decided to keep my mustache. I then crawled back into bed and waited for my wife to wake up so I could surprise her. Two hours later, I grew restless and started clearing my throat. She finally awoke, looked over at me and shrieked, “Ay! It’s Donald Sutherland!!”

I kept my moustache for the next 30 years—except for one short month back in 1985 when I shaved it to fool the kids as the Mystery Runner in our school Walkathon. No one was fooled and I decided to immediately grow it back. So in my first day back at school this week, I said hello to the Lower School Head. She has a habit of always being the first to notice when I get a haircut, so imagine my surprise as I stood face to face and chatted with her for five minutes before I finally had to blurt out, “Notice anything different?” Even with the prompt, she still didn’t. Now we have been colleagues for some 25 years, passing each other in the hall, sitting at meetings together, eating lunch down in the kitchen across for each other. Meanwhile, a five-year old boy who hadn't seen me in seven months waved to me from down the hall and after seeing me from far away for exactly 2 seconds, shouted, “Hey! Where’s your mustache?”

And so it went. Either people noticed immediately or not at all. It didn’t divide down any gender/age/ familiarity line. As mentioned above, some people who have known me forever didn't notice and others who knew me more casually did. Which in my thoroughly scientific research style, led me to these earthshaking conclusions which may stun the neuroscientists and change the way we think about each other. Ready? Here they are.

1. Some people notice facial hair. 
2. Some people don’t. 

And then there might be a third category of people. “Yeah, I see it, but do I care? You think I don’t have anything more important on my mind that commenting on your stupid mustache?”

At any rate, I’ve written to Howard Gardner and suggested this be included in his growing list of Multiple Intelligences. Before long, school curriculums will be built around developing this all important intelligence, showing photos of two people with similar values, but noticing their distinct facial hair differences (here I'm thinking of George Bush and Bin Laden). 

Meanwhile, you can test yourself. Look at the two photos below. Do you see anything different besides the Christmas tree, head angle, light and upper body clothing? If so, give yourself an A. If not, you may be one of the unfortunate types doomed to only succeeding in linguistic and mathematical intelligences.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Grateful Hearts

“Give us grateful hearts, O Father, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.”

So goes the grace at meals when I visit my in-laws and though “O Father” may be controversial, the overall sentiment is certainly worthy. The subject of gratitude came up recently in a recent group gathering and it’s a good one to consider.

Seems to me that gratitude operates at many levels. It begins as a social convention designed to make relations courteous, harmonious and pleasant. Children need to be trained—“What do you say?”— and if the training goes well, “thank you” peppers our conversations, thank you cards are tucked away in the desk drawers and we reserve space in the forewords to our books or introductions in the public performances to acknowledge and thank all those who helped. Gracias, Merci, Danke, Takk, Spacibo, Domo Arigato, Kamsahamnida, Obrigado, Xie Xie, Terima Kasi— thank you is one of the first things we learn and remember in a foreign language.

The fact that there is a word for thank you in every language speaks of some universal human need. In one of the most bizarre Utopian fantasies I’ve encountered—Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner— it was prohibited to say thank you on the grounds that we should just be nice to each other and there’s no need to add an extra thanks. An intriguing thought for about two seconds, but any utopia that ignores the actual nature of our species is doomed to failure. The fact that most people probably never even heard of Walden Two is proof enough. Gratitude needs to be spoken aloud for both the giver and the receiver.

A second level of gratitude is a selective variety. “I’m so grateful my children were born before computers and video games took off big time” is an example from my own life.
Other personal examples include:

• “I’m thankful I got to travel around the world before McDonald’s did.”

• “I’m glad that I got to hitchhike around the country before it got too dangerous.”

• “I’m grateful I didn’t die or get permanently injured when I crashed my bicycle into the car and smashed the windshield with my face.”

You get the idea.

Sometimes selective gratitude can carry a seed of smugness. “Glad I was born into the privilege of being a middle class white male in New Jersey” for example. Well, maybe not the New Jersey part. But in my book, this kind of gratitude falls short of the larger definition.

The third level is the profound understanding that we are here by the grace and mercy of others. The first sacrament is our food—we live by other’s death, be it plant or animal. The ancient traditions are filled with examples of how to respectfully take life and thank your meal appropriately. With the advent of slaughterhouses and supermarkets filled with pre-packaged food, we are far from grace as the essential fact of our very existence. But where people still pause at the dinner table and fold their hands or bow their heads, such existential gratitude lives on.

From there, it’s the countless seen and unseen helpers who guide us through this life, starting with our parents. Gratitude to parents? There’s a novel concept in contemporary American culture, but one at least as old as The Ten Commandments. Then there are the countless teachers charged with the mission of nurturing our tender souls, or at least teaching us how to dot i’s, cross t’s or curve our fingers at the piano. But truly, if we stopped to think about all the people who have shaped us and guided us and helped us—including the writers, musicians and artists who inspire us, the factory workers, farmers, truck drivers who bring us our needed goods, there really is no end to gratitude. Maybe that’s why B.F. Skinner decided not to bother thanking any one?

Gratitude, like its cousins of compassion and empathy, is a developmental process, taught by rote to children, who indeed need to develop the habit of saying thank you and meaning it occasionally. But deep gratitude is probably not possible until the frontal lobes are developed in early adulthood. And even then, it needs to be encouraged and nurtured to grow. It’s a quality of attention that needs time to pause and reflect, something difficult to do caught in the pulling and hauling of the daily round. It is a daily practice that requires intention and the largeness of heart to go beyond one’s little worries.

Lately, I’m feeling like the final level of gratitude is far beyond mere social convention, thanks for the good things that come our way or pausing to admire a sunset. It is a hard-won grace to be thankful for ALL of it— the support and the betrayals, the friends and enemies, the good fortune and the disappointments, without distinction. Not a faked “Gratitude Café” appreciation, but a deep meditation on the maddening fact that the bad luck and hard knocks of this life are as much (and sometimes more) grist for the mill as the pats on the back and hugs. Yeats had a moment like this when his body blazed with that feeling of blessing for 20 minutes and wrote about it again in his dialogue between Self and Soul. And being the frail and undependable creatures we are, we may feel that same kind of blessing one day and the next day (minute?), be cursing the person who simply will not move far enough forward to turn left so that we can make the light.

Thank you for reading this.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

But Enough About Me

“How was your day, dear?” I imagine my unseen readers wondering. Really? Before I answer that, let’s just say that there’s a fine line between being the hero of your own story (see Dream On blog) and thinking that anyone else is all that interested in your story. I often think about this reading some family Christmas letters. And I can’t throw too many stones here, because we do one each year also. Perhaps we get one point in our favor by doing it in rhymed verse or multiple choice with funny wrong answers— some kind of creative endeavor that some appear to have enjoyed.

But still at the heart of the matter is the idea that others are interested. And if they’re friends, family or acquaintances, one hopes they might be—up to a point. So and so got married or divorced or quit their job to swim with the dolphins in support of peace in the Middle East is newsworthy. Little Johnny scored two goals in the third soccer game of the season and had perfect attendance at church and loves to play video games is getting close to TMI. As one person confessed, “ I read so and so’s three-page letter and had to lie down and take an aspirin. Merry Christmas!”

What with Websites and Blogs and especially Facebook, the world has become an extended groaner Christmas letter. It’s bad enough we have to read once a year about things we were just fine not knowing, but now everyday is a chance to find out about the great salmon dinner someone just had or how little Charlie peed in the toilet two days in a row. The world is one big Reality TV show, with everyone feigning interest—“I’ll watch yours if you watch mine.”

How is this different from someone writing an autobiography or a novel or telling stories about her day at the dinner table? One distinction is the level of experience. An autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi or Ella Fitzgerald is probably more interesting than the story of someone who watched Reality TV Shows all day. And then went out to get more beer. 

Another is the level of craft. Is there poetry or humor or a storyteller’s zest in the telling? David Sedaris’s experiences might not be more interesting than yours or mine, but oh, how cleverly he tells them.

And finally, there is the hope that the story might hit some universal vein that others can relate to and feel that part of their story has been told. Dickens starts his autobiographical novel David Copperfield wondering if “he will turn out to be the hero of his own story,” but along the way encounters all the kinds of trials and tribulations that most of us can recognize and relate to— loss, joy, betrayal, loyalty, pride, foolish choices, love, redemption and more.

So back to my first day at school. I don’t really think that many people are sitting on the edge of their chairs wondering how it went. Nor should they be. Unless it involved a Martian abduction or kids tying up a substitute teacher or a heartwarming tale of how Lucy gave up her whole recess to sit next to and comfort Lily who had been hit with the ball. But perhaps a few might be interested to know that despite the pleasure of a more leisurely, independent and autonomous schedule that I enjoyed in my time off, the school routine is deeply embedded in my muscle memory, etched by my 36 years plus of living it day after day. And so all the metaphors held—slipping on an old pair of pants, riding a bike after a long time away, feeling like 7 minutes instead of 7 months had passed since my last class—in short, it was just fine and even more than fine. 

I’m quite happy in my own company, but truth be told, the three-year-olds I taught are much more interesting than I am in even my more inspired moments. And the 8th graders are pretty great too. I loved singing with the 100 elementary kids and telling them the story about me really being Doug’s twin brother taking over his teaching, using my new mustache-less face as proof. I even loved the staff meeting that began with laughter and ended with tears as people spoke from the heart— real stuff. That was my day.

But enough about me. At least, until my next Blog.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Is It Summer Yet?

Safe behind the tomato-proof glass of the computer screen, I dare to complain a little bit— tomorrow I have to go back to work. After six months off. (Put those tomatoes down— you can’t reach me!).

Some twelve years ago, I initiated a job share at my school with my two colleagues. Two jobs, three people, each of us gets one trimester off to write books, to play music, to travel and teach (see this Blog’s title). Counting summer vacation, that’s six months working at school and six months free— not a bad deal and one that’s allowed me to keep on at school for 37 years without feeling burnt out.

But now I have to go back to work for six months straight. Not that I haven’t been working. For most of the Fall, I was strapped to my chair for four or five hours every morning writing my next book on jazz blues. That was hard work and the hardest part is the feeling like you could always be doing more. But the difference between that and teaching at school is that I got to set my own schedule. As I mentioned a few postings back in Skateboard U., autonomy rocks! I got to march to my own drummer and find the beat that fits. I can be a harsh and demanding boss to myself, but mostly, my boss and worker selves got along well and knew how to talk to each other. When the need of the moment was to play the piano or get out on my bike or lunch with a friend, negotiations were simple and I didn’t have to check with anyone else.

When I wasn’t working on my book, I was off teaching workshops or rehearsing with the volunteer group of kids from school performing at the World Music and Body Music Festival. Those were scheduled activities, but had a different tone working with people who chose to come and thus, were motivated, eager, and appreciative. Sheer pleasure!

And as any Blog follower might remember, I did work for two weeks at school in October and then another week at a school in London. That was back to a rigorous schedule of 6 or 7 classes daily, but with a big difference. I was in the Lone Ranger mode— a short term ride in on my horse and speed away again with a Hi Ho Silver! No time for tangled relationships with students or teachers, no accountability beyond the class, no report cards, no staff meetings, no politics. Heaven!

But it’s all over now. Tomorrow I’m back to the relentless beat of someone else’s drum, kids in my class because they have to be there, report cards down the line, re-arranging the schedule with five different teachers when there’s a field trip, endless e-mails about who has seen the lost bass bar mallet or who moved the cheese and all the twists and turns and tangles of politics and relationships as a few hundred people daily negotiate their separate agendas to reach some form of workable community. Now it’s pleasure and pain, heaven and hell. In short, the “real world.”

Goethe said “Talent develops in solitude and quiet places, character in the stormy billows and full current of human life.” It has been a blessed six months floating on the tranquil lake of my own private paradise and now it’s time to re-enter the stormy seas of shared community. Time to give my character its Crossfit work-out. I’m sure it will be a pleasure teaching the kids again, enjoying my colleagues, finding the rhythm of the new beat with each day a different movement in the Suite of the week’s schedule, appreciating the contrast between Thursday and Saturday and working for the next inch of progress in my development as a music teacher. But still, part of me will be wondering:

How long until summer vacation? 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Recipe for an Auspicious Year

On the first day of the year, try these recommended activities:

• Chant through the entire Buddhist Sutra book, even if it wakes your wife up too early.

• Have oatmeal for breakfast, with orange juice and Roiboos tea. With a dash of honey.

• Play three games of Solitaire and win two. Cheat on the third.

• Play through Bach’s French Suites on the piano. Memorize the Allemande of No. 4 and be astounded yet again by the complexity of Bach. And moved by the beauty.

• Learn the lyrics to All of Me, All of You, All the Things You Are, Always and Autumn in New York. Note how it changes your playing. Wonder if by the end of the year, you could learn the words to 295 more jazz tunes.

• Shave your mustache that you’ve had for 30 years.

• Start cooking 17-bean soup. Count the beans.

• Look in the mirror and remember why you grew the mustache.

• Go for a walk in Golden Gate Park past the drummers on Hippy Hill. Think about going to get your bagpipe. Decide not to.

• Eat the soup with salad. Wonder why your upper lip is so thin.

• Watch Miracle on 34th Street and feel uplifted even if you’ve seen it 34 times before.

• Brush your teeth and decide you’ll definitely grow that mustache back.

Happy New Year!