Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Scarcity and Abundance

Here’s something you don’t hear too often: “We had an excellent staff meeting yesterday.” But it was true. First, two teachers reported on the Brain and Learning Conference they attended and then we had a guest author present some thoughts from her book “Don’t Leave the Story in the Book.” My little Memo book was filling up with reminders of things I already know expressed in new language and things I had yet to consider. Amidst the many pithy nuggets of wisdom—things like “confidence and competence often come together” and “happiness is essential to learning,” one thing stood out.

“Scarcity breeds gratitude. Abundance shuts it down.”  When you don’t have much, you are grateful for what comes your way. Each thing is endowed with greater value and thus, greater appreciation. I think of this often when it comes to giving gifts to my children’s generation, kids raised in abundance. I still have records that I remember buying with hard-earned money, books that were given as cherished gifts, even little keepsakes passed on. But whether giving specially-made CD’s to my students or books to nephews and nieces for birthdays, I have the sensation of each given thing being quickly washed away in the roaring river of abundance rather than floating in the streamlet of scarcity. And some of this is just pure mathematics— the more you have, the harder it is to keep track of things, maintain relationship with each thing, value each thing.

No one would ever wish an economic depression on any society and yet people forced to turn to the “shelter of each other” (the title of an excellent Mary Pipher book on this very subject) and make do with less found the necessary inner resources to not only survive, but thrive in other ways—after all, some of the finest jazz standard songs written were penned in the 30’s. People worked hard to recover prosperity and dreamed of better times. How ironic that when the better economic times came, people were not necessarily happier and possibly less happy, less friendly, less resourceful and less grateful. And how often I feel my generation complaining about today’s kids sense of entitlement, their lack of gratitude, their disappointment or downright anger if they don’t get their i-Pod upgraded when their friends do

Another related topic came up. “Struggle helps learning.” We all know brilliant kids who glide by because everything comes easy to them and when confronted with challenge, tend to back down. Meanwhile, people like me who have to work hard for even the most rudimentary achievement in many things, develop habits of perseverance and truly know what they know because struggle has helped store things in long-term memory. On the last day of Black History month, I can’t help but think that some of the extraordinary things black folks achieved in a vast number of fields were aided by the constant struggle to overcome the odds.

How odd that the two things we wish most for our children—abundance and a life free from struggle—may just be the very things that can work against their sense of happiness and fulfillment. Of course, it’s a matter of proportion. No one in their right mind would extol poverty and racism as “good grist for the mill of character development.” But a conscious restraint, a simple life not overwhelmed with stuff, adults willing to let their kids struggle through things—from the timestables to personal relationships— without trying to fix it too soon, can help us recover the gifts of scarcity without the actual hunger or grinding poverty, of struggle without intolerable racism or sexism or classism. They can help us create a culture of gratitude. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Citizens of the Imagination

What do W.B. Yeats, Pablo Neruda and Vaclav Havel have in common? They all were poets who held political positions in their countries. Yeats and Neruda were senators in Ireland and Chile respectively and Havel the president of Czechoslavakia. Imagine—a poet as President!

How do poetry and politics mix? It’s not an obvious marriage. But I do believe that the arts serve to keep a society honest, tuning into the pulse of the people and the heartbeat of the culture, alert to what’s riding in on the wind and signaling the needed change of the moment. In some Ghanaian villages, the master drummer is an important part of village politics, the one who knows all the rhythms needed for each ceremonial occasion. The chief may make the decisions (often in consultation with the drummer), but it is the drummer who passes it along to the people and activates changes through ceremony and ritual. (A similar dynamic in the role Sofia, James and I play as music teachers in our school—we know all the kids and we know the songs for every occasion. I often have felt that we deserve an administrative title—and salary!)

In typical governing bodies, Law and Economics fill most of the seats in the Senate. But shouldn’t we reserve a few places for Art to have its voice? Decisions, after all, have aesthetic, cultural and spiritual consequences. Might we consider these as part of the economics and ethics of any proposed change? Shouldn’t these factors enter into the conversation, be represented in the Senate?

Enter the poets, the artists, the musicians, the dancers. A strange idea to some, but really, what could be stranger than the current group of politicians the Republicans have put forth? A dancer might not appear to have much to contribute to the budget discussion, but then again, discussing it through dance could be a graphic way to illustrate certain points. (There’s a brilliant TED talk on just that subject, about using dance instead of powerpoint—see:

The democracy I envision requires not only informed citizens, but experienced citizens, people who have had their assumptions challenged by a novel, their breath interrupted by a dance gesture, their world stopped by a painting or their life turned upside down by a piece of music. Following Yeats, Neruda and Havel, we can use actual poets and artists in positions of power, but equally important, we need the arts to take their seat in the Senate of our imagination. We need to lift art out of its second class role as entertainment, diversion, hobby, and raise it to a force of powerful transformation, not just teaching the arts as a special set of skills, but inspiring a constant aesthetic engagement with the world.

Schools have the potential to train our future citizens to speak the language need in the new House of Representatives. But as they currently exist, they are mostly obedience camps for children to learn to beg, heel, roll over and play dead. When arts education is allowed in the door at all, it is often just another tedious attempt to learn the mere proper techniques, duplicate the established canons, perform to please parents or gain prestive or provide entertainment at football games.

A genuine arts education begins by challenging the passivity of rote learning and inviting children to dig down past the right answers to the unanswerable questions. Good arts programs help children develop habits of astute observation, active engagement and skillful wrestling of imagination into form. It is the place where children see the stories the mainstream media doesn’t show on the news, hear the tales kept out of the newspapers and history books, meet the characters whose face, skin, gender or upbringing are so radically different, but whose thoughts and dreams are so astonishingly the same.

As mentioned in the last posting, we need to cross the borders of differences that keep us apart to reach the land of shared humanity. To be a passport holder, you must qualify as a Citizen of the Imagination. All children are by birthright and temperament such citizens until we drill and kill their curiosity and dull them down to bland obedience. The arts are one of many strategies to keep them alive and vibrant—let’s start training them now. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Border Crossing

The Oscars have come and gone, with the usual blend of excitement and disappointment. The standing ovations—for Octavia Spencer in The Help and Meryl Streep, felt sincere and well-earned. But the one that moved me the most was the burst of applause for A Separation as best foreign film. Not only because it was a fine movie, but because of how clearly it marks the divide between the government-to-government view of Iran and the people-to-people connection.

It was six years ago teaching an Orff summer course in Salzburg that I first met a group of women from Iran and I was fascinated. They were warm, witty, intelligent, supremely musical and—may I say?—drop-dead gorgeous. In subsequent years, I worked in more depth with many of them and last year, with some men as well. My first impression only deepened and it intrigued me that a country with such difficult and strange politics produced people of such a high caliber. How could this be? And then I think of my Canadian friends who sometimes seem surprised to discover that I seem to be a functioning, decent human being with a passable intelligence who lives in a country that produced the current Republican primaries. So though there is a connection between a culture and its government, we have to remind ourselves to separate out the people and the politicians.

One of my new friends from Iran wrote last night while watching the Oscars. She wrote:

“After all the bad images around the world, it is amazingly and weirdly a big deal for us to be known with a great movie and not with an awful diplomatic behavior! Isn't it amazing how powerful the language of Art can be?!? Isn't it wonderful how easy it can pass the borders and talks to everyone?!? And it doesn't need any Visa!!!”

Beautifully said. Years back, I wrote an article titled “Art as a Force for Social Change”
following this same line of thought. An excerpt:

“Mass culture depends upon statistics, stereotypes, averages, both making people too much alike and too much different. By contrast, the soul as revealed by art is always both one of a kind in its particulars and universal in its qualities. A good novel or film explodes the convenient lie that the people not living in our neighborhood are strange and wholly other. By hearing their story, we cannot dismiss them as less than huyman, an exotic tribe or collateral damage. When a Richard Wright or Adundhati Roy or John Steinbeck present characters that live and breath, exult and grieve, rise above human foibles or fall from grace—in short, people like us—they offer a powerful antidote to the 6 o’clock news.”

That news these days is showing all the disturbing views of Iran and indeed, they are real. But why not combine that with the reminders of the people living authentic lives and invite us to create a bridge of conversation across borders? My friend continued:

“Here comes the foreign language category........."A Separation" we won! The first Oscar in history! And I'm crying!!!! :))) It's just weird to explain how you start putting all your hope, which has been turned down so many years in so many ways, in a 120-minutes movie, to scream your name somewhere in the world to be heard. It's just impossible to describe how I -and 90% of Iranian people, specially my generation- feel right now.”

Keep that 90% in mind as the news feeds us the images that portray “enemy.” (And let’s hope my Iranian—and Canadian and Brazilian and Spanish and South African and beyond friends—keep intelligent and compassionate Americans in mind as they watch the circus of Newt, Mit, Rick and Ron apply for the job of ringmaster.) In the real world of artists, we’re not immune to prejudice, pig-headedness, bitter rivalry (there’s a bit of The Black Swan in every performing group), but in the world of imagination that feeds us daily, we aim to touch the heart that beats the same in every breast. Anything that reminds us of our shared humanity is an antidote to the politics of separation. Thanks to Asghar Farhadi for reminding us and to the Academy for honoring him.

PS And though it’s ironic that I’m suggesting artists be sent to the negotiating tables at conflicts worldwide and a movie titled The Artist won Best Picture, I need to say (without whining!) that I was disappointed that The Help didn’t win. I loved the first film and celebrate its bold, imaginative leap expertly done, but The Help was that rare film that kept me in my seat long after the credits rolled. Yet another reminder that we needn’t look to demonize Iran for violating human rights given our own backyard history and such a beautiful, powerful statement about the humanity bound and tied down in racism’s straightjacket screaming to be seen and set free. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Express Yourself

It has been a month of constant visitors at our school’s music program, folks from Germany, Austria and Spain hanging out with us for two weeks to see and hear and feel what we’re doing. Our door is always open and we’re happy to share the beauty of what these kids can accomplish. At the same time, it puts us as teachers in a vulnerable position, not able to hide behind the glory of a one-day workshop where we appear as gods and fully revealing what happens when day after day we are faced with the unpredictable chemistry of groups of children with all their explosive moments, strange behaviors, interpersonal fireworks alongside the magic and the breakthroughs. We’re on display and the observer is witnessing an education filled with inspiration, perspiration, frustration, dedication, imagination, all fully revealed.

And that’s as it should be. It brings it all down to the real ground of the work. Perhaps the most valuable things we SF School music teachers—Sofia, James and myself—have to offer are faith and humor. Faith in the imaginative potential of the kids, in the power of what we have to offer them, in our own capacity to respond intelligently and compassionately to everything they throw our way— and with a hearty sense of humor. I had two visitors witness my hilarious attempt to make polymetric body percussion patterns visible using math attribute blocks. They—and the children—got to see me thinking out loud far below any reasonable standard of intelligence, trying to solve my mistakes with pennies on top of blocks and then other blocks on top of blocks and while I’m figuring it out with money all over the floor, three kids are intrigued and the rest are wandering around the room looking for something more interesting than my failed lesson. Well, nobody got hurt and by the end of the class, I had my Eureka moment of how to show what I intended and the next class was smooth as butter. Though not necessarily”better”— both were valuable in their own way.

At the end of one visitor’s stay, I asked if she had any questions. Normally, the typical questions are things like “Where did you get that CD?” or “Are you really allowed to sing a song about kicking your boyfriend out of town?” But this young woman surprised me with “Why do you teach music?” Never at a loss for words, I started babbling about the pleasure of helping children express themselves through such a powerful medium that calls on the full range of the body’s capabilities, the heart’s capacity to feel, the mind’s ability to both analyze and imagine, the soul’s facility in connecting with worlds seen and unseen. And then she surprised me further: “Why is it important to express yourself?”

Again, my mouth started working before my brain, but it found its way to some solid ground. Sitting in front of the eucalyptus tree, I said something like this:

“Well, all of nature loves to express itself. That tree is expressing its tree nature, the wind is expressing its wind nature and the two together make a kind of a dance. Why do those plum blossoms bloom so colorfully and beautifully? I can’t help but feel part of them is showing off, like folks dressed in all their finery entering the party—"I will pretend to be casual, but I hope you're checking me out. I look good!"  I stumbled into a YouTube video of flamingos in mating season and who can doubt that they are so happy exhibiting themselves in dance? It’s the nature of nature to display itself, express itself as precisely what it is. And that includes swarming bugs and writhing snakes and the darting tongues of lizards and the weeds crowding out the flowers. It’s not all flowers and butterflies.

And so humans as part of nature have it in our nature to express who we are. But though some of our display is hard-wired, most of it comes from our unique capacity to draw from a complex mix of possibilities. If no two snowflakes or dung beetles are alike, you can imagine how the expressive potentials augment geometrically moving up the evolutionary ladder. In company with a long list of poets, philosophers and spiritual teachers, I concur that part of our destiny is to discover our particular way of seeing the world, to claim our little corner of creation—and then display it so the world is refreshed. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it:

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame…
each mortal thing does one thing and the same…
myself, it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me, for that I came.

In other words, since we have no choice but to be unique, let us be as unique as we can be. Not in the sense of cultivating an eccentric personality, but in the sense of going deeper into our particular capacity and expressing it in a way that all can recognize a part of themselves eloquently spoken (or sung or danced or gestured or painted or invented). When I hear an inspiring musician or poet or brilliant person in any field, my first response is 'You are amazing!' But the better and truer affirmation is 'Thank you for using your gift and doing the work to express so clearly and beautifully what I myself feel and think.'

Why do I teach music? To help children master the tools that will help them discover, cultivate, nurture, discipline and express at the highest level the gift of their uniqueness. Of course, only a few of them will do that specifically with music, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is simply making the attempt.”

I wonder whether my questioner would have been happier if I just said, “It’s a lot of fun.”
Next time, she’ll know better.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dictation from God

My Mom has had a difficult life. She was an only child growing up in Coney Island in the 1920’s and lived her teenage years in the Depression. Her parents were Russian/Polish Jews who came to New York to escape persecution. Her father worked in a hat factory and was constantly worried that someone was going to come take him away. I don’t know many details, but it seemed clear that her childhood was far from happy.

As a young adult, she sold my father some art books while working at Barnes and Noble and thus their romance began that led to a very happy circumstance for me—ie., I was born! During my childhood in 1950’s New Jersey, which I fondly recall as quite happy, my mother was either bouncy and vibrant to the point of occasional public embarrassment or laid out in bed with a migraine or just general low spirits. This back and forth soon found a name—manic depression (now bi-polar)— and in her later years, discussions about my mother’s health revolved around adjusting the dosage of the current drug treatment. Whether from the disease, the drugs or just her general character, it was hard to follow my mother’s train of thought, but there often was coherence behind it if you dug deep enough. And many times she astounded me with her depth of insight.

Close to 91 now, her dementia makes her coherence even more rare. Sometimes she hovers between dream and reality, telling fantastic tales where time and space are hopelessly confused. . Sometimes it involves terrible images of children being beheaded and such and I wonder if it’s a replay of some of her childhood fears and anxieties. Sometimes she just marvels at how lucky she has been in her life, appreciating every breath of fresh air or note on the piano I’m playing. You just never know what will come up.

So today I took her out into the sunshine and she starting talking and after a few minutes, I realized that something was happening here and took out my pen to write things down. It felt like she was saying goodbye and though her health is stable and I hope she stays with us for a few more years, it was about the most beautiful goodbye speech I could imagine. Though she mixes up her childhood with mine sometimes (see first sentence), most of it was extremely coherent. Here it is, almost verbatim, with barely a pause between thoughts, as if she were taking dictation from some other world:

“Don’t worry about that terrible, lonesome life you had. You will be happy. You will live a lovely life that you made all by yourself. The world will notice you. I’m so lucky, my two wonderful children who are so good to me and made me so happy. Never regret anything. Make good decisions that bring you happiness. What more could I ask for? I got everything I wanted, I’m so thrilled. Just smell that air. I’ve got to say goodbye to you, you know. Oh, my precious! And I know your children will be lucky. You’ll wish it on them and look after them. You had a hard upbringing and you made up for it later. I’ll be living up there and watching you. I’ll never forget you. Goodbye, my sweetheart, my wonderful, wonderful people. You’re young and healthy and determined to live life to the fullest. You won’t rest until you’ve taken good care of yourself. You’ll be happy. And we’re all going to look out for you. Thank you all, I love you all. That wasn’t bad for an only child to end so great. Be happy. Make that your goal. You can do it if you use your brain, thinking. I had a great time working it out. I’ll say this laughing and patting myself on the back and saying, ‘See? You just had to wait and see how everything turned out right.’ You’re going to be so happy. You’ll see. As happy as I am now. It is going to happen for you all. It was meant to be for this family and I’m so grateful. “

I believe she would have continued on longer, but I had to go back to school to lead the preschool singing time. So I reluctantly interrupted her and started wheeling her back to her floor. And then, my mother, who never once mentioned God in the 60 years I’ve known her. concluded with:

“There is a God after all. There has to be.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thumb on the Cork

The cigar box is open and my thumb is on the champagne cork. After a Fall spent writing my 8th book, ALL BLUES: Jazz for the Orff Ensemble, it is just one corrected comma away from being sent off to the printer. It will still be another four weeks or so before I hold that baby in my hands, but still, the relief of the end of pregnancy is worthy of some heel-clicking jumps in the air. And with the weight of “when will it be done?” off my shoulders, I suddenly feel light enough to do it!

I think writing a book is the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing anything akin to real pregnancy. There’s the pleasure of conception, the slight morning sickness as one struggles with embryonic ideas, the excitement of new life forming on the page, the delight of feeling the first kicks, the dreaming and anticipation of finally meeting the face that you can’t yet see in its finished form. There are sonogram moments—“Oh, there’s the toes!” and panic moments—“Is everything developing normally?”

And then there’s the labor pains. I know any mother reading this might throw things at me and sneer, “You have NO idea!” and they’re right. But there is an intensity to the end of the project that has something in common with labor. Writing, after all, is labor and though the final labor pains are all psychological, they're nonetheless real. For some reason, the last part of the process has been particularly grueling, as if the due date was suddenly shifted and the doctor casually announces, “Oh, by the way, this pregnancy will be ten or eleven months.”

Here is where writing a book is so different from just about anything else we do. Conceiving the project, organizing the order, writing something with a dose of inspiration and a heaping portion of practical use for the teachers buying it is labor enough, but unlike the twitter, the text message, the Facebook posting, the e-mail, the blog, you’re aiming higher, reaching for a kind of immortality—for at least as long as the first printing. That means you’re accountable for every crossed t, dotted i, comma, hyphen, spelling, grammar and page number. Not to mention the fact that this book contains 35 musical examples—and so the same kind of accountability for every sharped G and flatted B, repeat signs, the right number of beats and so on.

Of course, I have an editor (thank you, Peter) and a copy editor (thank you, Corrine), but it is an astounding example of how the mind works to have two or three people comb through a manuscipt and STILL end up finding typos. I swear that elves come in the night and re-arrange things. But really what’s happening is the neurological truth that the mind can only attend one thing at a time. So a tip for future writers—go through a manuscript several times, each time focusing on something different—spelling, punctuation, etc. Another neurological truth is that the brain often is approximating information based on familiarity with previous information. That's why most people don’t catch the error in “Paris in the
the Spring” or are able to “rd wt s wrtn hre” because of that faculty. That ability to get the gist works in our favor as learners, but against us as copy editors.

Though I have a great team that deals with layout, music scores, cover design (thanks, Bill and Lisa!), the difficulty of the project is compounded by the fact that I’m self-publishing through my own company, Pentatonic Press. This means that I had to get permission to arrange some 22 jazz tunes from some seven different publishers who hold the copyright and then a different permission for the accompanying recording. Which was its own project (thanks, John!) requiring hours in the studio. Additionally, I have to get the ISBN numbers and arrange with the printers and the storage facilities and on and on. At times I feel like a single father!
Then after the birth comes the terrible revelation—you gotta raise the kid! Send out the announcements, register with your distributor, get it up on Amazon, ship it to the Orff dealers, include it in the family of other books you take to workshops—and teach the material in your workshops for at least a couple of years until it can be on its own.

I hope this doesn’t sound like whining. I’m thrilled to have the independence of my own press, delighted that all the books seem to be doing well enough and that they’re proving to be useful to teachers, grateful for the dealers who help distribute them. But in a lifetime of reading, it took writing my first book to appreciate what authors go through to give us the pleasure and stimulation they do. I think everyone should be required to write a book once in their lifetime. The patience, perseverance and perspective it demands is really something extraordinary, quite different from cooking a meal, giving a concert, finishing a painting.

At any rate, it’s almost done. Though even while writing this, I remembered someone I forgot to thank and had to make yet one more last minute change. I get one more chance to look at a prototype before the whole 2,000 copies are printed and if the elves are busy, I’m sure I’ll find something else. But for now, my thumb is on the champagne cork and I’m ready for a well-deserved—“Pop!”

At least right after I copy-edit this blog. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

First Kill All the Lawyers

In a rare moment, my sister and I went together to visit my Mom. She was in bed and her message to us was: “Leave me alone!” We were excited about taking her out for a drive, but there’s no arguing with the needs of a 90-year old. Same as the three-month old whose feeding needs will not align with your adult schedule. In both cases, the demands of the body trump your announced plans. End of discussion.

So my sister and I decided to visit our other friends in the home and instead of beginning around the piano, just sat in a room catching up on the gossip inevitable in any community. Turns out that five beloved and highly qualified nurses had been fired because they forgot to fill out some paperwork. The residents had a meeting with administration to protest and discovered that the admin. only caught the mistake some five months later. “Seems like you should fire yourself!” said one of the residents to the supervisor and the response was, “Yes, it was unfortunate that I missed it. But we all make mistakes.”  Of course, the difference was that the nurses didn’t get to say the same thing. They weren’t allowed to apologize for their mistake or even explain it in more depth. They simply got fired.

Hearing this story called up my own experience where a boss and I both raised our voices in public and in a letter written after the incident, he said that his raised voice was “unfortunate” and mine was “unacceptable.” And here is how power works in a nutshell. Those with it get to apologize and ask for understanding of human error. Those without it are reprimanded or dismissed.

It was also revealing that in pressing the admin. for more details about the nurse’s mistakes, the door to conversation was slammed under the “law of confidentiality.” Exactly the same at another recent incident in my community! I understand that this can be a protective device for the reputation of someone who really has transgressed against the community, but in these cases, it seemed clear that it was being used as a smokescreen to hide administration’s accountability for flawed decision-making.

When you have two (and more, as the stories pour in from colleagues in other schools) parallel incidents with almost identical plots and consequences, you begin to stand up and pay attention. Something larger is going on here and it essentially boils down to our contemporary culture of litigation. I both imagine and know that administrators are being advised by lawyers from outside their community and because the buck stops with them, feel pressure to capitulate to the fear of litigation. In this climate, there is no wiggle room for circumstance, past performance, open discussion, honest admittance of an error with avowed intention to learn from mistakes and do better next time. Simply the cold guillotine of law severing beloved community members without an ounce of fellow feeling, understanding or compassion. Except for the compassion administrators feel for each other as they recognize the difficulty of their job and the opportunity for them to plead for understanding as they make mistake after mistake.

The first rule of Brain Science is that Fear is the lowest level of brain functioning. Whether in the heat of the moment with a car hurtling toward you or in the constant low-grade atmosphere of fear of shame, humiliation or litigation, the fearful brain simply cannot access the areas that allow for both higher-level thinking skills and some sense of empathy. Decisions made based on imagined fears of consequences (will someone sue us?), no matter how real those fears may seem, not only signals the end of common sense, but also cripples communities and cultures. This is not a good thing.

All of this is clearly articulated in what I consider one of the most important books of the 21st century—Life Without Lawyers by Phillip K. Howard. This was a sequel of sorts to an earlier book titled The Death of Common Sense, a better title to sum up the message (though not as attractive in selling books!). Mr. Howard is a lawyer who gives both alarming examples of the law working against our better selves and inspiring examples of how law can protect us in the way it was intended to without killing off our capacity for common sense and ability to create and sustain ethical communities. 

Of course, Mr. Howard is not really advocating, as Shakespeare did, “first kill all the lawyers.” Though we can view law as a sign of our failures as neighbors (law is, after all, an explicit last resort when we fail to achieve an implicit ethical co-existence), we know that if we put two or more people in a room together for more than five minutes, conflicts will arise that grow too large to be solved by the people themselves. We need structures and guidelines to help contain and resolve them. The movie A Separation is a perfect example of such a conflict where at any one moment, each of four people at odds with the others seem right. Instead of a jury (the movie takes place in Iran), there is one person mediating these conversations who vacillates between “this is what the law says—end of story” and keeping the door open for more facts to arise and points of view to be heard. In the end, the truth is revealed and the complexity of the situation clarified. Along with some beautiful moments in which compassion still has its voice in the midst of bitter opposition, anger, blame and guilt.

Take a moment to read Mr. Howard’s book. He gives many practical and helpful examples of how to limit the dirty-bathwater-powers of litigation without throwing out the baby. But as the book itself remarks, law can only contain human failings, not remedy them. For that we need an alert, intelligent, feeling community of people who can still use their common sense and have real conversations without invoking the cliché of “transparency” or hiding under the cloak of “confidentiality.” We need to recognize these symptoms of our cultural sickness, support administrators in their difficult positions while insisting that they lean toward protecting their community members. 

Meanwhile, if you have any leads, I know some good nurses and teachers out looking for a job.

PS Though I know I got your attention, I felt some remorse about such a strong title and was about to change it when I received an e-mail from someone hosting a Conference I'll be teaching at. In my 30 years of giving workshops around the country and around the world, the standard protocol has always been to be met at the airport by your host. This host wrote: "We have liability issues around picking people up at the airport. You'll have to take the bus." I'm sticking with my title!!

Monday, February 20, 2012

What's Worthy of Attention

It was an ambitious field trip by any standards. I took fifteen 8th greaders to the Eddie Marshall Tribute at Yoshi’s, never dreaming that there would be four different groups playing for three and a half hours without a break. The caliber of musicianship was extremely high, from the 19-year old kids from the Brubeck school to the veteran musicians—John Handy, Albert Tootie Heath—in their 70’s and some of the music was difficult and abstract. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that the kids clustered around the small tables were initially more excited about a night (well, afternoon) on the town with sushi, milkshakes and a chance to socialize. In fact, like the old jazz clubs, where a steady stream of small talk was part of the musical texture. But the new aesthetic, for which every musician is thankful, is a more concentrated listening and I confess I was edging toward annoyed when I had to keep re-directing the attention of the girls sitting next to me.

But I have to say that all in all, the kids did a great job of listening and I’ll find out next week from their reflections what they really thought of it. There was one moment, however, that came dangerously close to making me break my “no whining” February blog vow and the fact that I’m writing this at 3 a.m. shows that this caused a minor earthquake in my psyche.

As someone practiced in stirring up a lot of musical and otherwise spirit in a roomful people with what Orff called elemental music, I am a champion for simplicity. I base my life on music’s power to awaken us from our slumber and connect us deeper than mere social grace using tools as simple as a finger counting game for babies. As an adult musician, it sometimes has been hard for me to accept that virtuosity is the gatekeeper of my craft and to earn your place on stage, you must pay your dues and do your work at the altar of Hanon scales, Jamey Aebersold jazz licks and hours of technical practice when you’d rather be out playing baseball. My workshop work has proved that you can evoke some strong and beautiful music without that work in a community participatory sense and that has its place in the ecosystem of Spirit. But only up to a point. The next level up, the stage-worthy level, requires the aforementioned dedication and discipline.

The maddening thing about music is that though some measure of virtuosity is required, it alone is impotent to complete the venture. For that you must re-connect with that intuitive, spontaneous, 3-year old musical spirit to be truly fertile. How often have I been bored by mere virtuosity and even disdainful of it as a shield for that raw spirit. (Though I recognize that some of it is sour grapes than I don’t have the talent to stick with that work myself!) All this is prelude to the thing that I look for in a concert—the marriage of the childlike spontaneity with the adult-crafted discipline to truly usher in the magic.

And so after three excellent groups, enter Bobby McFerrin. Mr. McFerrin is my name-dropping calling card, as I taught two of his children at my school for many years and even performed with him (and Eddie Marshall on drums and Bill Douglass on bass) at a school auction, immortalized on some old cassette tape buried in some drawer somewhere. More importantly, he is the living embodiment of everything I hold dear about making music. One of my books on the subject is titled Play, Sing and Dance and add Act, Tell jokes, Preach a slightly tongue-in-cheek but actually powerful sermon in the middle of a song and that’s precisely what Bobby did yesterday to charge the air with a magic far beyond mere notes well-played.

And here comes the near-whine. Amidst the fun and frivolity, he brought the house to that pin-drop silence I hope for in a concert, that moment when time stops and everyone is listening as if their lives depended on it. The piece was a Horace Silver tune called “Peace” and the words matched the moment. And it was at this heart-wrenching moment that I looked over at some of my kids and saw them huddled around someone’s i-Phone. Annoyance, anger and deep sadness popped me out of my seat with my finger wagging and then back down again to enter the depth of the song.

Damn those machines! They are robbing us and the children of our most precious gift— the ability to know what is worthy of attention. Instead of keeping alert to grace and wonder, we are addicted to the constant trivialities of our self-enclosed human soundbytes, not only missing the call of the lark rising in the air or the pink of the plum blossom against the green of the cypress, but moments like this on a stage when a song gathers everything that’s important in this life into 32 bars of pure transcendance.

I’m not blaming the kids. They are kids, after all, 13 years old, still trying to figure out what is worthy. But instead of leading them to these sacred places, we give them machines and model ourselves the constant distraction they offer. Bobby sang a to-me-unknown verse about hoping for a peaceful world for the children, singing of the age-old dreams every generation of adults has ever had, wishing and hoping and working for a world for our children just slightly better than the one we have known. Or at least bequeathing to them the glories we knew in our mostly machineless childhoods, those long days at the beach or walks in the woods or hanging out on the front stoop or jumping in piles of autumn leaves or building snow forts or family board games or lively dinner conversations uninterrupted by checking our text messages. And instead of attending to this ancient hope of peace captured in tones, rhythms and text,  some of the kids are looking at—what? News of Whitney Houston’s funeral? The photo they took five seconds ago? The text message from their friend snowboarding?

Rachel Carson, the radical scientist who tried to protect us from DDT, spoke years ago of what gift she would like to bequeath all children— a sense of wonder. Beautiful. That’s my hope as well. That children—and adults—can distinguish between the passing show and the eternal truths, the sensation and the profound, the shoddy and the immaculately crafted, the distraction that hides our radiance and the revelation that uncovers it. I want these kids to know, deep in their bones, what’s worthy of attention, when to shut the phone off and be wholly present, or better yet, when to leave it at home to invite Presence. The song says:

There's a place that I know, where the sycamores grow
And daffodils have their fun
Where the cares of the day seem to slowly fade away
And the glow of the evening sun,
Peace, when the day is done.

If I go there real late; let my mind meditate
On everything to be done
If I search deep inside; let my conscience be my guide
Then the answers are sure to come
Don't have to worry none.

When you find peace of mind, leave your worries behind
Don't say that it can't be done
With a new point of view, life's true meaning comes to you
And the freedom you seek is won
Peace is for everyone.

That’s the place we need to go with our children. And please, friends, let us leave our phones behind.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Happy Belated Jerome Kern Day

My 96-year old friend, Ben Lubitz, still plays piano most days at the Jewish Home, but not as much as before. His age is finally catching up with him. When I first arrived three and a half years ago and starting playing “his” piano, I was a bit nervous about stepping on his toes. He had a well-deserved reputation at the “house pianist” and I certainly didn’t want to steal his thunder. But perhaps because our styles are quite distinct and we genuinely appreciated each other’s playing, he soon welcomed me and told me many times that he loved my playing, a compliment that meant the world to me—and still does. Imagine how touched I felt when he recently began giving me gifts of some of this old piano books—one of Big Band songs, another of Jerome Kern songs.

I particularly appreciated the latter, as Jerome Kern has a special place in my heart. One of the elders and founding members of American musical theater music, he is well-respected amongst the songwriters and jazz musicians today still enjoy working their way through such classics as All the Things You Are, The Way You Look Tonight, The Song Is You, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and a host of other great tunes. My special affection comes from a book of his songs for organ that I played as a child. (I still have the book with the gold stars, penciled comments from my teacher Mrs. Lutz and those dates that sound further and further away—4/27/ ’59!!!) Without the slightest idea of how these songs would re-surface in my jazz playing so many years later, I grew to love the melodies and still today, they fall most easily under my fingers and sing most naturally in my ear. I particularly admire his intriguing bridges connecting the opening and closing A sections, never clichéd and often with an intriguing harmonic passage that find its way home through the back door.

I looked through Ben’s book and found some intriguing songs I didn’t know—How’d You Like to Spoon with Me?, Cleopatterer, Ka-lu-a, She Didn’t Say Yes, You Couldn’t Be CuterIt was fascinating to read some details of his move from Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the precise progression I’m investigating with my 8th grade Jazz History class. I discovered he went to high school in Newark, New Jersey, two towns away from my own hometown of Roselle. He worked as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley and made his way up through the ranks, with the usual breaks that we read retrospectively in biographies that seem pre-destined to occur (including being scheduled to take a trip on the ill-fated Lusitania and changing his mind just before boarding!). Some of his life story is told in a movie titled “Till the Clouds Roll By,” a good view on a rainy night.

At the end of the book is a 1985 letter by Ronald Reagan celebrating Kern’s centenary and proclaiming January 27th “Jerome Kern Day.” I’ve never seen that on any calendars, but will make a note to celebrate it next year. Meanwhile, "Happy Belated Jerome Kern Day" to all! (Is there a similar day for George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin? And what about Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc.? If we paid attention to our own national heroes, every day would be a holiday!)

Like many of his fellow songwriters (Cole Porter excepted), he teamed with lyricists, most notably Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein. The latter wrote a moving eulogy included in the book in which he described Kern thus:

“He was alert and alive. He ‘bounced.’ He stimulated everyone. He annoyed some, never bored anyone at anytime. There was a sharp edge to everything he thought or said.” My kind of guy!

I went on to read about how and when he died. Cerebral thrombosis. November 11, 1945. And then the next sentence: “He was sixty-years old.” My age.

I haven’t taken to reading obituaries in the daily paper, but that sentence hit me over the head. And what have I done lately?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Urban Farmer

Who fed the chickens? “I did. “
Who stacked the hay? “I did.”
Who milked the cow? “I did.”
On this fine day.

—Children’s song by Ella Jenkins

In the shift to urban culture, it has been a long time since most of us lived on a farm. In rural Ohio where I went to college, I used to bike through the farmlands and imagine some ideal pastoral existence. At least until some friend point out that I’d be working my butt off, getting up way too early in the morning to milk cows, feed chickens and stack hay, dealing with pigshit, bugs and deer in the garden, coyotes in the hen house, the loud roar of tractors, the whims of the weather, a surplus of zucchini and so on. Living on a farm wasn’t exactly Thoreau leisurely bonding with nature around Walden Pond— more relentless work and responsibility tending to all the different demands of farm life, with no vacation in sight.

But in some ways, not too different from my life in the big city. Getting up by alarm to go to school, feed the little chickens so they will offer the fertile eggs of the future, organizing six different curriculums like neatly-stacked bales of hay, coaxing the milk of spiritual nutrition from piano keys and xylophone bars. And if I’ve chosen my work well, planted the garden that suits my appetite, raised the crops that will help feed others, considered carefully where to put fences around too-many possibilities and left some land alone, why, then every day is indeed a fine day.

The song goes on as an exercise in personal pronouns. Next verse, sense of self and other—“you did.” Then gender identification—“he did,” “she did.” Sense of identity with one group as distinct from another—“they did.” And finally the grand climax of inclusiveness— “we did.” And if you are so fortunate as to be in a community where everyone has consciously chosen and crafted their farm, then the excitement is contagious and the love palpable, the world refreshed by whole groups of people working side-by-side tending with tenderness and care the crops they grow, inch by inch, row by row. Husbanding the animals they have chosen relationship with in exchange for eggs, milk, cheese, meat and bagpipe skins. Planting the fruit trees in good faith that nature's bounty will provide.

And yes, there are days when we curse the crow of the rooster, times when crops fail through no fault of our own, seasons with storms that sweep through and topple in an instant our carefully crafted work. But if we are properly humbled and grateful and accept our station in the grand scheme of things, these too can count as a fine day.

So whether on an actual farm or living in the city working in an office, most of the daily round is farmwork responding to the constant demands of raising the things we have chosen, the things that need our attention and the things we need to feed us. Having sprinkled the grain of these black-and white letters in the henhouse of my blog, I’m off to re-stack my CD’s. A day in the life of the urban farmer awaits.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Plum Blossoms, Musical Men, Canaries and More Bent Sticks

I’m loving teaching at school, but let’s face it, it really cuts into my day. Started four different blogs, but can’t seem to finish them— these kids keep showing up in my class and demanding attention. Imagine! So this entry will be potpourri of ideas worthy of development—or not.

• The Dearest Freshness
The plums came early this year. Everywhere the city is sprinkled with bursts of pink blossom announcing the first stirrings of Spring. Because Winter is never exactly harsh in San Francisco, the contrast is not as palpable as say, Maine. But still our eyes are refreshed by the beauty and our ancient connections with nature’s renewal are stirred afresh. If we’re low in our emotional temperature, feeling despondent or isolated or less than we wished to be, each plum tree is an invitation to rekindle our sense of wonder and participation in rebirth. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and after lamenting how the earth is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” reminds us that “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” He must have been walking under the plum blossoms in San Francisco when he wrote that.

• Your Life in Music
After meeting twice a month for 21 years, the men’s group I’m part of discussed something new—their musical autobiography. Okay, it was my idea, but it turned out to be a good one, as I asked people about their earliest memories of music, what they had in school or in the way of formal lessons, what musics they “discovered” that touched them, how did their tastes change over time, what music means to them now (we’re all 60 plus). Next time you’re with a group of friends, try having this discussion— it’s fun and revealing! In our group, some interesting patterns emerged. 

• Listening to music in childhood was a doorway into the imagination, a taste of transcendence and magic. Peter and the Wolf was a first memory for several.
• Taking music lessons was a deadly dull chore pitted against baseball and running around outdoors and most bailed the moment they could.
• Music in adolescent was a soundtrack for the hormones and a centerpiece of developing an emerging identity.
• Music in adulthood faded into the background as work, marriage and children took center stage.
• Music in retirement (or close to retirement) was an old friend welcomed back.
• All agreed with Nietzsche: “Without music, life would be an error.”

• The Canary in the Coal Mine
We had a staff meeting recently where our wonderful learning specialist, in partnership with the classroom teachers, identified kids in each grade who need extra attention and support. I felt alarmed to hear that 50% or more of the kids were on the list! What does this mean? A few possibilities:
1.     Our expectations are too high.
2.     We’re aware of issues and taking on issues that used to be swept under the rug and left entirely on the kids’ shoulders.
3.     Kids are in trouble. They’re the canaries in the coal mine of culture announcing that we better pay attention before things collapse.

And let’s add, “All of the above.”

Still thinking about this one.

• Fix My Kid
Montaigne’s bent stick keeps re-appearing for me (see Dead White Guys blog). I grew up believing as a kid that anything that I did wrong was my fault. Now kids are being told they’re victims and it’s always someone else’s fault. As many teachers can testify, there are a growing number of parents who think that every problem their kid faces is fixable by social engineering and that the burden of fixing it lies with the school and the teachers.

The old way had its flaws. From my point of view, bullying was too casually accepted under the shoulder-shrug of “that’s the way of the world” and that caused great harm. So we try to institute policy as a useful guideline and protective safeguard. But once policies are in place, we tend to stop thinking and lose the distinction between casual teasing or testing power relationships within the normal range of child-development. As every jail film will tell you, preying on the weak is the bully’s way of teaching the victim to stand up and the moment they do, the dynamic changes.

So between leaving it all in the kids’ world without adult support (remember Lord of the Flies?) and imagining we can fix everything for our children lies the ground of loving our children, listening to our children, offering support and clear expectations, creating social structures that lean toward justice, peace and harmony and at the same time realizing that our children have a lot to work out about how to negotiate the dynamics of power and relationship. Beyond examples of clear harm and habitual abuse, we need to leave them alone to do so, painful as it may be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cooking for One

My wife’s schedule allowed her to visit my daughter in Argentina and so I am alone in my house for a couple of weeks. Though I would love to see my daughter—last time was in India a year ago— I found myself quite happy to stay home. This traveling music teacher is mostly going from one room in the house to another and then  to school and back and it feels just fine. Just six weeks back at school after the Fall off, I have a rhythm going that feels important to maintain. Happy for once not to be on a plane.

But alone in my house! That’s rare. I’m a person who needs a healthy dose of solitude and mostly get it on planes and in strange motel rooms. I tend to be the one who travels and it’s rare for my wife to be gone without me, leaving me with the house to myself. 

Of course, when I was off this Fall, I had plenty of time during the day, but to have nights home alone is a different story. I get to control the lighting! Decide on the music and just how loud it can be! Eat dinner on my own time and clean up according to my rhythm! Play the piano more than usual (though I still have the neighbors to consider)!  If I want to go out to a movie, why, I just get in the car and go! No discussion as to which one or where or when. And most amazing of all, I get to leave the toilet seat up! It’s great!! We all should have time like this to remember who we are face-to-face with ourselves. 

But dinners are a little odd. I notice how cooking for one is not like half of two—there’s a different mathematical principle at work that mysteriously makes more food than two minus one would suggest. 
It also has a different feeling cooking, either not inspired to do anything particularly interesting or to do something great and feel like the pleasure of sharing it is missing. And the silence during the evening meal is a contrast to all the years of family dinners. “How was your day, Doug?” has a bit of a hollow ring when I'm both asking and answering.

I also notice, as I have sometimes in hotel rooms, how the line between solitude and loneliness is a constantly shifting border following no logic but the whims of the heart. The conversation between our need for some quiet solitary moments and shared relationship often follows “the grass is greener” model. After too much time alone, we crave company. After too much company, we crave time alone. “If only I weren’t single! If only I weren’t married!” is our opposite announcing our need of the moment—these are not long-term cure-alls for whatever we think is ailing us, just our constant search for an elusive equilibrium.  I suppose it’s how we keep moving and hopefully growing, looking for what we don’t have at the moment and if we’re wise, simultaneously grateful for what we do. 

Meanwhile, I’m hitting the stride of solitude. Got a great book (ironically titled “The Marriage Plot”), getting in shape on the piano with Bach, Schubert and the usual jazz standards, keeping this blog well-oiled, taking care of my elderly cat and throwing wild bachelor parties. (Well, not really, but just checking up to see if my wife is reading this.) I hope she’s enjoying the glaciers of Patagonia while I change the light bulbs and pay a bill or two— something she has done faithfully while I’ve traveled and I’m grateful.

Now off to the kitchen to make an inspired quinoa salad. Anyone want to come for dinner?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Skype Abuse

Today I had a Skype visit with my granddaughter Zadie. At 12-weeks old, she is markedly different from the precious 5-week old I got to hold and cuddle over Winter Break. More alert, smiling, babbling— though not much of it when I call. Camera shy? But still I’m so grateful to get to see her from 3,000 miles away. And for free! And legal! (We’ve come a long way from the fake credit card calls I made in Europe back in 1973!)

But as wonderful as it is to see her, I always hang up the call feeling depressed. How can you see a baby without holding her? Without lifting her in the air, bouncing her on your knee, tickling her, rubbing noses, giving raspberries on her belly, dancing with her, walking with her outside tucked in the front snuggly. It’s frustrating!! So close but so far. When it comes to grandchildren, there’s something cruel about the Skype call.

So instead of sitting and moping, I started thinking about that urge to hold and touch. Touch, along with movement and song, is one of the three languages we start speaking and responding to when we begin our time here on the planet. Up until recently (in human history), we intuitively knew all this, but things got weird when Descartes proclaimed the brain as separate from the body and the Puritans decided that the body was an evil trap for Spirit to be patiently endured until we were set free in heaven. A few centuries later, the necktie came in to cut off circulation to everything below the throat, talking heads appeared on the news programs and other bizarre aberrations of our capacity to think strangely—and wrongly—appeared. Especially when it came to child-raising and babies were left alone in cribs at night and other devices during the day away from the body of mother (or sibling, grandparent, neighbor, etc.). Then the experts came in to justify this practice.

Case in point. John B. Watson, one of the early behaviorist scientists, wrote a book in 1928 titled Psychological Care of Infant and Child in which he advised young mothers to be careful about giving their baby too much love and affection. “Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap, “ he cautioned and then in a moment of weakness added, “If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.” Someone who steals a candy bar can get thrown in jail, but someone who, however innocently, helped rob a generation of children from the touch and love they needed and deserved gets off scot free. I’m not whining here, but let’s face it, there is no justice.

Another such “innocent” disaster took place in the 1940’s when the germ theory of human contact causing disease convinced workers at an orphanage to feed and clothe their babies, but not to touch, play with, hold or handle them. The result? The infants grew sickly and weak and many died of the same diseases the policy was trying to protect them from. A psychologist sent to investigate concluded that failing to hold, stroke, sing and coo to, touch and play with babies, is fatal to infants. The most ignorant villager in the most backward village could have told us that, but we civilized folks are so clever that we were sure that science would teach us the proper way to raise children.

And ironically, now it can help as neuroscientists are investigating the necessity of touch and speech and song and play. The above stories came from a sleeper of a book written by three doctors titled A General Theory of Love. I gave it to my daughter as a Christmas present and she didn’t seem thrilled, but if she ever has the leisure to read it, will find it not only beautifully written and rich with stories mixed with essential and understandable facts, but ultimately an affirmation of what I hope she knows from her own upbringing— that love is not the luxury of poets, but the necessity of us all to reach the full promise our enlarged brains hold. The punch line—we need a culture attuned to the ways of the heart— is certainly a subject that I hold dear to the heart and have struggled in my own modest way to contribute to in my school and workshops.

And speaking of school, you know I can’t resist a constructively critical whine here. My second daughter went through a relatively enlightened teacher credential program here in San Francisco, but while she had just one hour of music training in two years of classes, she was required to attend a three-hour session by a specialist who advised these young teachers against touching children to avoid legal action.

If you read the bent stick metaphor in my last posting, you can’t find a better example of two disastrously bent sticks than the story of touching children in school. First was corporal punishment (remember my blog a year ago? Caning banned in Korea—last year!) and stories of sexual abuse hidden in a cloak of secrecy. Not only in the school, but in the home and culture as well. Nothing could be more damaging than a child publicly shamed with physical punishment and privately shamed with sexual abuse in a wider culture that refused to talk about and acknowledge it. And so the law stepped in and created Child Protective Services with a worthy aim in mind— no more secrecy and those who are abusive must face consequences and treatment. All well and good.

But then the stick bent in the other direction to the point where young teachers are advised to never touch children of any age. So instead of isolated incidents of abuse perpetrated on the few, now there is an institutional abuse of all by depriving children of the need for touch. One might argue that they still can be lovingly touched at home and I hope that is true, but a climate of fear of touch permeates everywhere and an education without loving touch is barely an education at all. It’s fine for these young teachers to know the law and the wiggle-room it allows ( in reality, most teachers still do hug children and pat them on their back), but after the 10-minute legal talk, they should spend the next few hours in company with grandmothers and neuroscientists to study how vitally important touch is.

And if touch (and movement and song) is vital at the beginning of life, it becomes an urgent necessity again at the end of life. So many visits with my mother these days are just sitting in silence holding hands in the garden, interrupted by occasional outbursts of kisses. Along with some songs, this is just what the doctor ordered.

And by the way, it’s pretty important in the middle of life as well! So after reading this, go over to the nearest person and give them a hug. With their permission, of course.

PS A word about that grandmother/neuroscientist training class. It shouldn’t be on Skype.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dead White Guys

We humans rarely get it right. We set in motion weird notions of relationship where some have the power and privilege and the rest are subservient to it with few choices beyond obey or resist. When enough resist and those with power are overthrown, the new folks take over and anything good that grew in that former swamp of relationship is thrown out as well. As the philosopher Montaigne said, “To straighten a bent stick, we first have to bend it the other way.” Maybe. But if you don’t release it, it will just stay bent in the other direction. (And even when it is straight, what’s so great about a straight stick? Montaigne needed to work on his metaphor a little more.) And so back and forth we go.

Dead White Males, the holders of so much privilege  (well, at least while they were alive. Is their hierarchy in Heaven?) have been held in low esteem in the past few decades. Universities have revised their syllabi and for young hip intellectuals and advocates for social justice, anything that comes from the pen of the DWM is suspect, dismissed, re-interpreted in the light of revisionist and deconstructionist theory.

And I myself have participated in this, shouting “Amen” to Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven,” loving to tell the stories of Horowitz and Rubinstein coming to hear Art Tatum play jazz piano, habitually including Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Dickinson, Basho, in any list I make of writers, Thornton Dial and Gee’s Bend quilters in lists of artists, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente and Ravi Shankar in lists of musicians and always putting the Nicholas Brothers before Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in my list of tap dancers to help enlarge our notions of the playing field. (I showed my 8th graders Fred and Gene dancing in the song The Babbit and the Bromide and then a clip of the Nicholas Brothers from the film Down Argentine Way. The kids were outspoken as to who were the more vibrant dancers and outraged that the former were more well known. Two more dead white males shot down and I helped load the pistol!)

There is no question that so many have suffered—and continue to suffer— from a culture of selective inclusion. And not just the people excluded. The whole culture misses out on the possibility of being refreshed by extraordinary people who were denied a leg up to share their gifts more widely. Wouldn’t the world have enjoyed two Mozarts, both Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl? Could it have encouraged Clara Schumann a bit more than it did without taking a single note away from Robert? Wouldn’t we be uplifted to hear music from the countless remarkable musicians in cultures worldwide whose names we will never know? Wouldn’t it have been fantastic if the Nicholas Brothers had made as many films as Fred Astaire? Well, we don’t get to re-write history and instead of whining (still February, after all!), we can be grateful for those we do know and remember to keep the choices and opportunities open so that the next genius of any class, race or gender can refresh us with her or his work.

But yesterday I spent in company with a bunch of dead white guys named Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Ravel and got up from the piano with my mind clearer, body refreshed and heart more open than when I sat down. I couldn’t help but think “Damn! Those guys could write!” And again, in a world dominated by the notion of music history beginning with Palestrina when Western harmony began to develop, I’ve done my part to celebrate the beauties of a musical world so much larger than Europe between 1600 and 1900—the vast repertoire of music in the pentatonic scale, modes with drones, African polyrhythms, gamelan forms, the complexity of Indian rhymes and melodies and so much more. West Africa drum choirs put Bach in rhythmic kindergarten, Indian ragas put Schubert in melodic preschool and the Balinese gamelan angklung shows Western composers that they can do much more with 4-notes than they ever dreamed possible.

But none of it negates the Western genius of functional harmony—it just puts it in balance with the particular genius of other musical cultures. But genius it is to create a system of harmonic tensions and releases that pluck the strings of our hearts with so many subtle shades and gradations of feeling. And to take musical ideas through so many variations of harmonic accompaniment, different textures, related themes reveals a mind at the height of intelligence. Western classical music may seem so-two-hundred-years-ago, but its intricate structures and harmonic variations will help build a sophisticated mind and nuanced heart in any player or listener willing to do the work.

So friends, while opening the doors to the riches of all artists and thinkers, let’s not slam the door in the face of Socrates, Shakespeare, Goethe, Brahms, Dickens, Whitman, Bill Evans and others. We needn’t exclude Dead White Males in order to widen the circle of inclusion. Of course, I have a vested interest in this since, worthy of remembrance or not, I myself will be a DWM some day. Please don't hold it against me. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

High Anxiety and Button-Up Pants

Like everyone in San Francisco, I can tell you where I was when the earthquake of ’89 struck. On the couch, to be exact, reading a magazine and then out the back door as fast as I could. My kids were outside and were starting to run upstairs toward the house when I shooed them back into the yard. My youngest (5 at the time) was crying and I was trying to soothe her and then realized she was upset because I had knocked her rice cake out of her hand. We slept in the more solid back of the house that night, woken up several times by the after-shocks.

Though mild compared to other natural disasters—we had little physical damage and none of us were hurt— I felt a profound psychological shift. The idiomatic expression “it really shook me up ” was an apt description. The solid ground I had walked on so dependably for years suddenly was undependable and unpredictable, a precariously balanced tectonic plate that could open up under my feet without a moment’s notice. I had begun studying the Bulgarian bagpipe at the time, a powerful instrument with a repertoire of quirky, uneven rhythms that shakes me out of complacency when things get too dull or comfortable. But after the earthquake, I couldn’t play it for some six months. I needed calm, quiet, soothing music in a square 4/4 time that would lead me back to trust and predictability, more harps and glockenspiels than bagpipes and screaming jazz horns.

Cultural shifts sometimes have that quality of earthquakes, with changes happening faster than we can assimilate them. “You know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?” sang Bob Dylan decades ago and it was part of his role as an artist to be the antennae of the culture and announce not only that “The Times They Are A-Changing,” but give some hints as to precisely how they were changing and needed to change. That’s often the role of the artists in the culture, to open up the conversations needed in this particular time and this particular place and invite Mr. Jones into the conversation.

What is the conversation we need here and now, not only in the U.S., but worldwide as well? That could be quite a list, with climate change, population and the end to ethnic rivalry near the top. But I would suggest that in addition to noting how the times they are a-changing, we need to pay attention to the rate of change itself. For if one thing sets us apart from all other times in human history, it is the ever-increasing rate of change spurred by technologic shifts. Human history is like a ball bouncing that decreases its height with each successive bounce, getting smaller and smaller and faster and faster.

Anthropology talks about Neanderthals as developing over a couple of million years. Homo sapiens came in around 200,000 years ago and not much changed for at least 165,000 years. Then some 35,000 years ago comes the first evidence of cave paintings, that major leap in evolution when the artists appeared in the culture. Now change is measured in blocks of 10,000 years at a time until writing begins to appear and now the accelerating rate of change is measures in thousand year chunks. During the Dark Ages, ain’t much happening of note for a few hundred years at a time and then comes the explosion of culture in the Middle Ages, led by—guess who?—the artists and writers and composers and cultural shifts is measured in centuries. By the time of the next big technological explosion, the printing press in the 15th century, it’s reduced to some 50-year blocks. And so it continues until the next series of explosions—photographs, recordings, radio,  films, TV and now the 20th century (in the U.S.) is parceled out in decades—the Roarin’ 20’s the Depression 30’s, the War Years, the conservative 50’s, the turbulent 60’s and so on.

Can you feel that ball bounce getting smaller? By 2000, the personal computer, cell phone, I-Pod, I-Tunes, Facebook, YouTube and beyond accelerated the rate of change yet again. A computer two-years old is virtually obsolete—or at least needs some serious upgrading.

And then the coup-de-grace. Some three months ago, I bought a pair of new jeans at the Gap. After losing weight (see The Doug Diet), I needed a new pair with a smaller waist. Back I went and was so thrilled to see the exact same pair one size smaller. But with one change—instead of a zipper, it had buttons for the fly. What?!!! Buttons?!!! So I went to one of the 20-something saleswomen and pleaded with her to find a pair with zippers. She looked it up and of course, they only came now with buttons. She suggested I wait a couple of months until the zippers came back.

Now according to Wikipedia, zippers trounced buttons on pants starting in the 1930’s. To quote: In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children's clothing featuring zippers. The campaign praised zippers for promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. The zipper beat the button in 1937 in the "Battle of the Fly", and designers raved over zippers in men's trousers. declaring the zipper the "Newest Tailoring Idea for Men." Among the zippered fly's many virtues was that it would exclude "The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray."
So why this nostalgic return to the 30’s? And whatever happened to choice? And is the rate of dependable predictability now down to months?

And so the challenge of our times. With the rate of change faster than it has ever been, we need to pay attention to its impact on the psyche. High predictability, the state of most cultures over a few hundred thousand years, means low stress and anxiety. Kids growing up in a fishing villages or farm lands pretty much know they’re going to fish and farm. The parents are relaxed about their upbringing and add arranged marriages to the mix and everybody is more or less secure in the feeling that all will be well. But low predictability because of rapid changes creates high stress and anxiety. Parents are wondering, “Will my kid find a job? Find a life partner? Will I myself keep my job or be outsourced to Asia or replaced by a robot?”

I first heard of this formula from Rob Evans, the author of “Family Matters,” explaining why parents were more anxious about their children than ever before and how that creates a new dynamic in schools. Parents who feel powerless in the rapidly shifting ground under their feet, the constant tremors and minor earthquakes that characterize the rate of change we’re all experiencing, will try to find some corner of control and power and teachers are feeling that today. It helps to understand why and re-direct the conversation. This formula—High Predicability, Low Anxiety. Low Predictability, High Anxiety— also helps to understand the epidemic return to Fundamentalism, the nostalgia for former times, the fantasies of the Tea Party and more. It times of great change and low predictably, we naturally want to cling to something that appears solid, no matter how false that perception is.

And here’s the good news. If we can meet the challenge of the unknown, we will have stumbled into the Buddhist truth of impermanence and have the possibility of re-arranging our lives to meet it. Alan Watts wrote a while back about “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” advising us from a Zen perspective to go with the flow of the unknown by being more wholly in the present and training ourselves to respond intelligently and compassionately with each new situation. “Low predictability” is actually the state of mind of the artist at the mercy of the Muse—all creative acts carry a quality of unpredictability. But ironically, the best way to meet that is a habitual practice routine that is dependable and ritual-like in its predictable practice.

As always, an interesting conversation that’s just beginning with no time to finish. I have to go pee and it’s going to take me a while to deal with these buttons.