Saturday, March 31, 2012

CEO of Spitter

Twitter move over! The new generation is here with the latest in instant communication — Spitter! The CEO is my granddaughter Zadie Taylor, who discovered her spitting and squealing capacity and practiced it for an hour straight in her snuggly while we walked through the open air Eastern market. Some minor glitches figuring out how to get spray to shoot out from the computer screen, but we have our tech people on it so she can make her fortune before she turns six months old. Meanwhile, the front of her sweater and my face are proof of Spitter’s powerful communication potential.

If this doesn’t work out, we’re working on the Wee-Pod, the Wee-Mac, the Wee-phone, the Wee-Pad. As soon as manual dexterity kicks in (darn those troublesome evolutionary developmental stages!), we can erase one E and move into the new paradigm of We. It’s time to get out of that narcissistic I-this, I-that! and move into the interdependent culture of the future, where “we” trumps “me” and we realize once and for all how we are deeply interconnected. For example, while I’m writing this, Zadie is chewing her woven bear fingerpuppet, clearly stating in her eloquent baby-language that there are no barriers between them.

Zadie’s “Tia Talia” Skyped from Argentina, but try as she might to sing and dance on screen to connect with her niece, Zadie will have none of it. Without smell, touch, taste, weight, it don’t mean a thing. Babies are evolution’s last stand against a world reduced to screens, the time of life when the senses are more wholly balanced. I imagine someone is trying to develop the Scratch-n-Sniff screen, the Spitter-screen, the cloth-woven computer, but I hope not. I have loved every second of being Zadie’s window into the world, even when she spits in my face, gnaws my knuckles, poops while I’m holding her, and screams in my ear. Spring Break is over and I’m going to miss it.

Snapshots of Virginia

In the midst of our family visit to D.C., took a two-day trip to the western part of Virginia. A few impressions and assorted facts:

• Redbud trees blooming everywhere. Nature’s party dress. (see photos)

• Lots of U.S. Presidents born in Virginia—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Taylor, Tyler, Harrison, Wilson. In fact, more than in any other state.

• In the year 1800, Virginia had over 300,000 slaves, three times as many as any other state.

• The town of Lynchburg. Time to change its name?

• Elevation matters. Up on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 3,500 ft., the trees were still undressed for Winter.

• Advice to young men. “Marry an older woman.” That way when she turns 62, she’ll get you on the Blue Ridge Parkway for free after buying a lifetime Senior Discount $10 National Park Card. (Costs $15 a pop otherwise to just get on the road. What a deal!)

• Charlottesville. Hip, youthful, artsy, with an outdoor car-free European-style pedestrian mall, cool schools and surrounding hills.

• Monticello tour fascinating, varied and tasteful. Good treatment of the discrepancy between Jefferson’s eloquence and influence in the cause of freedom while owning slaves (and fathering children with one of them). But I couldn’t help but notice— not a word about Native Americans.

• The Declaration of Independence was in a code that no one has quite cracked yet. Jefferson wrote that we are all entitled to “Life, Liberty and the Purfuit of Happinefs.”

Wishing you all luck in your own Purfuit of Happinefs. It’s efsential to uf all.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Pay Attention to the Hyphen

I didn’t go to the cemetery in Lexington, Virginia for any esoteric Tibetan ritual or ruminations about mortality. It was more like a mystery novel, a ‘where’s Waldo” puzzle trying to locate some of my wife’s relatives buried there. A cousin had instructed her to “turn right at the Stonewall Jackson statue,” but neglected the minor detail of from which direction! So we spent a good half hour wandering reading old faded headstones before the groundskeeper appeared and was able to guide us to the spot.

And so I had 30 minutes to read inscription after inscription, mostly to the tune of: Born - Died.
The numbers were different for each, the distance between them varied, but in the end, the result was the same. We arrived. We left. And something happened in-between.

And that’s what interested me. What happened in that hyphen? The numbers revealed the bookends, but what story was told in that tiny dash?

Friends, my advice is simple. Life is short and mortality is looking over our shoulder.
Do something worthy and memorable in that dash. Pay attention to the hyphen.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Child Care

The year was 1972, the place a school nestled in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. I arrived as a 21-year-old college intern to teach and stepped out of the car to be greeted by a cluster of middle school kids. The first to step up was a 12 yr. old girl with wild frizzy hair and a twinkle in her eye. “Hi!” she said with a smile. “I’m Ralf.” And so began a beautiful lifelong friendship.

From that startling beginning, I discovered that Ralf and I shared a similar sense of humor and a passion for music. I remember looking at a book catalogue and cracking up for twenty minutes over one title: My Darling, My Hamburger. We decided that Groundhog’s Day was our favorite holiday and still send each other greetings every February. We started playing recorder together and she was the star washboard player in the jug band I started.

That job lasted a mere six months, but Ralf and I kept in touch. Some years later, she lived in California as a student at Sonoma State and came regularly to visit her Mom in San Francisco. Eventually she married and settled in New York for a time, where we managed a few visits and then moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to raise her two boys and become a third-grade teacher. At opposite sides of the country, our friendship was reduced to annual Xmas cards and Groundhog’s Day greetings.

In 2006, circumstances reunited us for three fun days back at that North Carolina School in company with three of the other jugband members. As it is with friends, a few decades were crossed instantly as we all picked up where we had left off, only this time with graying hair. And here on my Spring Break, my wife and I finally came to her home in Charlottesville en route to Monticello. That 12-year old now 52, but with the humor and twinkle intact. And the music. After dinner, we started singing the old songs and amazed ourselves what we pulled out from the deep recesses of the musical brain.

But most moving was when Ralf looked at me sincerely and told me I was one of the most important teachers in her life. Taken by surprise, I asked, “Can you be more specific?”

“You cared about me and were interested in me at the times in my life when I needed someone to care about me and be interested in me.”

“But that was no effort. I just liked you!”

And there it is. Turns out that’s all I needed to do. I’m such an idiot, thinking that I need to impress kids with fun classes or Martin Luther Kingish speeches at school ceremonies or the perfectly calibrated curriculum. But it’s so much simpler than that. Just be interested in them and care about them. Of course, we do need to teach them stuff and it might as well be fun, engaging and cohesive and that indeed takes a lot of work. But at the end of the day, the biggest impact comes from the least effort—just like kids and show them you care.

But like all worthy things, it’s simple and it’s not. We can make a connection with any kid (or adult) simply by asking, “What’s your passion?” and then let them talk. And that does count for a lot. But the two things that count even more are:

1)    A chemistry beyond logic. You simply are happy in each other’s presence.
2)    A shared passion.

And that’s not for the masses. That’s a gift. If you have one kid a year that you connect to like that, you’re doing well. Maybe one or two kids a lifetime is all we get. But you can’t have it with them all. My daughter just wrote a Blog about a school in England that banned best friends because it’s “unfair and exclusive,” yet another idiotic piece of social engineering that ignores the way human beings are put together (right up there with “Siblings Without Rivalry”). Human chemistry is real and mysterious—we can’t concoct connections in the laboratory. They grow naturally in the wild and all we need do is accept them as they come. Yes, we need to be mildly careful of the teacher’s-pet syndrome, but forget fairness. What’s unfair is to neglect such a precious relationship. All a child needs is one teacher at the right time and the right place to see, know, feel affection for him or her and a life can be changed forever.

So in a lifetime of effort to be worthy of children, I once did something right. I liked a kid and kept on liking her and let her know it and lo and behold, it ended up mattering. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Every age has its own delights and limitations and 60 is no exception. Contrary to popular opinion, I highly recommend it. (Especially, as Woody Allen once quipped, considering the alternative). So far, 60 has been kind to me.The atrophy of the body and senses is minimal enough that reading glasses, quiet restaurants, occasional naps and other minor aids is enough to keep me in the game. I’m feeling entitled to more freely speak my mind, am inching closer to something that might qualify as wisdom, and sometimes get a good bus seat and even senior discount at select movies. It’s great! Okay, it’s not all peaches and cream. Sometimes the mirror frightens me and the number 60 attached to little ol’ me seems frankly unbelievable and being invisible in the singles bar (where I went in to use the bathroom—why else would I be there?) can be sobering, but mostly it has been a marvelous time of my life.

And amidst many pleasures, the greatest, and one I’m painfully aware will be short-lived, is the chance to spend time with my mother at 90 and my granddaughter at 0+. As I’ve remarked often before, the beginnings and endings of life share many things in common. Both have ESP+ in the foreground (Eat, Sleep, Pee and Poop), both are mostly pre-verbal (or post-verbal) expressing through sounds, music and gestures, both light up with face recognition, both are more wholly in the present with a memory that doesn’t expect or anticipate the next moment, both express pain and pleasure immediately and in no uncertain terms, both thrive on touch and kisses. And so on.

And then there’s my daughter I’m visiting, who at 31 is married, has her first child, bought a house and is on her way into a fruitful and solid career, all of which was true for me at the same age. There’s too much happening between 0 and 30 to qualify as a single stage— indeed, you can make cases for the radical differences between the 2-week and the 6-week old, the 3-month and the 6-month old, the 1-year and the 3-year old, and so on. But today I’m thinking in 30-year blocks— the first 30-years to create an identity, discover a path, find a life partner and then between 30 and 60, you’re in the thick of your workaday adult life with mortgages, kids, major appliances, spackling and upholstering, work, work and again, more work, carpool schedules, Saturday soccer games, 401 K’s, the whole catastrophe.

And then you hit 60, at the far end of that 30-yard run down the field. In my case, my mortgage is paid, no more major house renovations in sight, kids long done with college, people at school keep asking me about retirement (is that a hint?). As one phase ends, another begins, the chance to attend to those neglected parts of yourself and re-shuffle the balance. (As in this new jazz group I’ve starting, my first “band” and the exciting possibility of being an actual part-time jazz musician.) You move from parent to grandparent (and indeed, it is grand!) start cleaning out the garage, plan those trips you always meant to take and enter a new kind of freedom before the body binds you to smaller and smaller steps. Enter 90.

There is a breathtaking mathematics to it all. Zadie at the start of her first 30-year phase, Kerala at the start of her 30 to 60 phase, me taking the first steps (fate willing) to 90 and my Mom at the end of the cycles (but beginning perhaps yet another grand adventure). Poised at the 2/3 point in the sequence, holding hands with the loved ones each at the other points in the fraction. A beautiful symmetry at this moment of balance. One can only be grateful. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Baby Boomer Report Card

Walking around the waning cherry-blossoms near the Lincoln Memorial, granddaughter Zadie nestled in the snuggly, it struck me—the first time I came here was in the Fall of 1969 for a massive Vietnam War Protest. I was a freshman in at Antioch College and arrived in a bus full of outraged young idealists (in fact, probably half of the student body! We were a radical hotbed in those days.) We were kids, of course, who had nothing of wisdom, but were overflowing with good-intentioned hope. Our hearts were young, but aimed correctly toward the eradication of all the ism’s that limited and hurt people—racism, sexism, classism— and particularly, an end to war. And side-by-side with all we were against, there were the things we were for that we were trying out— wholesome food, expanded consciousness (with and without various plants and compounds), free schools, good music, comfortable clothes and more.

So here I was again, 43-years over the rainbow that we had begun and thinking about the nature of the pot of gold we expected at the other end. How did we do?

Here in D.C., I passed the Capital bikeshare bicycles and remembered that we had instituted free community bicycles back at Antioch in 1969. Back then we hitchhiked, now we ride share. Then we just crashed with people who picked us up hitchhiking, now there’s couch surfing. Then Chinese restaurants were the main choice for “ethnic food,” now, I’m walking by Thai, Egyptian, Salvadorean, Vietnamese, Brazilian and Ethiopian restaurants—all in the same block! Shopping at Safeway, I picked up tofu and miso and tahini and other foods I never heard of in 1968 and now are commonplace. Then girl’s basketball had different rules, now one of my high-school alum girls is on the wrestling team and beat a boy. Then Yoga and meditation and Buddhism were an exotic flower, now a relatively accepted part of the American landscape. Then a mixed-race baby got tongues clucking, here and now I’m walking through the Capitol Hill neighborhood with my granddaughter with such welcome greetings from folks of all ages and colors. Back then, Martin Luther King was newly gone, now he is immortalized in a Memorial filled with crowds reading his messages carved in stone. Back then a Democrat was in the White House who had signed a Civil Rights Bill, now a Democrat is again in the White House—and he’s a black man. And though it won’t make national news, back then a group of dedicated young teachers had just moved their three-year old alternative school from a church basement to a new building and now the school is still thriving, in some ways better than ever—and I (who came late in 1975) still work there. Fellow Baby-boomers, A+!! We have put feet under the wings of our vision and changed the world for the better.

But less we get too self-satisfied, there is plenty that didn’t quite turn out as we thought. In 1969, McDonald’s had sold 5 billion hamburgers and now is up to 247 billion. Every corner of the country has been stripped, mauled and strip-malled so every place is equally ugly and without character (except Yellow Springs, home of Antioch College, which has triumphantly refused national chains). Attitudes about race have shifted notably, but there are still more black men in prison than in schools. California went from number 1 in schooling to number 48 and we’ve lost a decade of training an imaginative and intellectually prepared future generation to mindless and harmful testing. Average TV viewing for children back in 1969 hovered around two hours per day, now screen time is over seven hours daily. Marijuna is still illegal, population has doubled, we have 80 degree weather in March in Michigan and the level of discourse in the Republican primaries would have made even Nixon shake his head. Most devastating, the Vietnam war I was protesting in 1969 was far from the end of U.S. involvement, On we marched into Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, Libya, the Persian Gulf, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, not too mention CIA involvement in Chile, Guatemala and other places not yet revealed. Baby-boomers, F-!!

Well, the world is a big place filled with some seven billion complicated human beings with all our weird beliefs, allegiances, outdated ideas and strange new notions. Our greed, ignorance, hope, good-heartedness and good work are all mixed-up, now armed with great technological power and an increasingly interconnected Web in which a butterfly's flutter affects the whole deal. We know more than we ever have about what can grow eloquent bodies, dynamic minds, compassionate hearts, but seem powerless to effect it straightjacketed by our own stubbornness, fears and determination to stay ignorant.

On a windy Spring day walking through the legacy of Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Martin Luther King with the next generation in my snuggly, there’s still plenty of work for us all to do. Plenty of hope, plenty of shame, plenty of good reasons to walk through each day and choose which side of the problem/solution line to stand. Plenty of reason to renew our dedication to train our future citizens to pick up where we left off. With Spring in the air and Zadie looking out at the world in wide-eyed wonder, I vote for hope.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The 3R's

Taxes and report cards done, last classes taught, last item in my little Memo book list crossed out and that lovely feeling of release. It’s Spring Break! Boarded a Friday night plane, back in my little monk’s cell by the window with my three sets of prayer beads— a Crostics puzzle, a novel (Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder—riveting!) and headphones for the perfect airplane movie—Tower Heist with Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and others. From the airport past 2:00 am cherry blossoms around the Mall to my daughter’s house and awake the next morning to the squeals of granddaughter Zadie. Her four-month self quite different from the 5-week-old I held back in December and of course, more developed, more interesting, more responsive.

What a day we had! Not only did I get smiles, but I made her laugh and then she made me laugh as we spoke our mutually intelligible language of coos, gurgles, animal sounds. I sang to her more than I talked and danced with her and held her on my lap, watching her discover her toes and feel the fabric of my sweater and grab my finger and give it a taste and speak with her eyes and eyebrows, going through the lexicon of emotion in rapid-fire succession. We went to the local grocery store in her Rolls Royce stroller (quite different from the flimsy thing I remembered using with my children!), where she charmed some shoppers in the store who had the good sense to notice her.

We then picked up her Grandma at the airport (who had been to Michigan to visit her mother) and settled into our Air B&B, a whole floor to ourselves with a TV the size of my car. Now Sunday morning and the second day of rain, having just missed the 80-degree Friday. This seems to be happening all over (in Michigan, for example) and the delight people feel in Spring’s first warm days is tempered by the uncomfortable feeling that climate-change-wise, this can’t be a good sign. And maybe some guilt that they really haven’t earned the freshness of Spring because they haven’t paid their winter dues. The trees are beginning to leaf a month earlier than usual, the daffodils poked their heads-up to see what’s going on, but now it’s a bit cooler and the rains and grey skies make it feel at least a little bit wintry.

And so a week of Zadie-time, of walking with the tourist throngs amongst the cherries, of catching up on reading and rejuvenating after an intense (but satisfying) three months at school. Mid-week, we’ll take a trip to Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, maybe spend another day at Mt. Vernoon, perhaps escape into a museum if the rain keeps up. Vacation time. Align ourselves with the budding bushes and trees, the robins returning from the South, poke our heads up like the daffodils and get out of our indoor work mode. Enroll in the School of Spring with it’s 3R curriculum—Remember! Refresh! Rejuvenate!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Peanut Butter and Jelly of Western Harmony

Rice and ____. Burgers and ____. Bread and _____. Milk and _____. Fish and ____ . “You’ve got 40 seconds to gets kids’ attention” is the prevailing wisdom and so began my 6th grade music lesson on harmony. The kids were immediately hooked as they filled in the blanks with “Beans! Fries! Chips! Butter! Cookies!” At least most of them did. Some said “Vegetables. Buns, Roses. Coffee, Bananas (a SF School joke—it's the way I teach kids to take off the F and B bars on the xylophones).” Trained to honor divergent thinking, these answers were also accepted.

I went on:  “Batman and _____. Lilo and ______. Simon and _______. Abbot and _______.” And that’s when I lost them,  “???? !!!” was the collective look they gave me, their way of saying “Dude, is that some geezer trivia? “I didn’t dare go on to Laurel and _______, Burns and _______, Gilbert and _______, Rodgers and ________ (two answers here), Fred and ________. Never mind dip into history with Lewis and _______, Antony and ______” Isis and _____. (And, dear readers, how are you doing? Feel free to send in your answers via the comment section. Or offer more pairings of your own.)

Having slipped through the back door into the main theme of the lesson, their attention now turned to the two xylophones I brought out. While I played a C drone on the bass, a volunteer played each note of the scale several times. The group had to rate with their “thumb-o-meter” the relative compatibility of each note with the bass. C and G turned out to be as natural a mix as Peanut Butter and Jelly and E was as good match as Batman and Robin. A and F were interesting, but D and B seemed like they should never sit together in class with C. Just too much tension.

The idea of comparing relationships between notes as if they were compatible food groups or duo teams of people is an intriguing way to discuss Western harmony— more playful, more relevant, more real for kids then the usual dry and abstract rules. After that little exercise, I sang the song we were to learn while playing C in the bass. Early on the melody lands squarely on a B. It was clear that it didn’t fit with the bass. What to do?

“Change the B” is one logical answer, but the song is the song. We don’t get to change it anymore that we get to kick out Barry from the class just because he doesn’t get along with Cathy. So what if the chemistry between Barry and Cathy is a bit tense? Can’t be helped. But it turns out that Barry and George hit it off famously. So when the B comes in the melody, the bass note needs to change from C to G. Welcome to Western harmonic theory! From here, the relationships get as complex as a Shakespeare farce or the characters in Downton Abbey, but the cornerstone are the notes that get along with the I chord and those that prefer the V chord. (And lest you think it’s simple, the fact is that put an E and G in-between the C and B and things are suddenly hunky-dory— a perfectly compatible Major 7th chord.)

With notes, there are some scientific laws of acoustics that do a reasonable job of explaining consanances and dissonances. (Though, as often happens, science falls short of explaining why Bulgarians might consider the interval of the 2nd pleasing to the ear and the Germans prefer the 3rd.) But how to explain the attractions between people, the chemistry of groups, the way some things please us and others disgust us? And why even bother to explain? We walk through this world in a tangled web of relationships, leaning toward this person or thing that brings us alive and avoiding that which shuts us down. And to make matters more complex, the ones we pledge undying love to, certain we have found our soul-mate, are a moving target. They change, we change, the times change, our needs change and suddenly the once-consonant chord doesn’t please us like it used to.

Now the 6th graders and I have a new vocabulary. "Hey, Tom! You're being a bit B to my C right now. Can you come up to C or at least drop down to G?"As good a classroom management tip as any. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Vernal Egg-quinox

Happy Spring! I know you’re looking for the perfect way to celebrate the Vernal Equinox (yes, it's today). Summer Solstice has big bonfires and all-night revelry, Winter Solstice some light-returning rituals and dances involving swords and antlers, but the Equinoxes tend to be minor holidays in comparison. What to do?

Try this. Take a raw egg and see if you can balance it on its end (the thicker one) on a table or other flat surface. (No cheating with salt!!) According to some urban legend or ancient wisdom, the forces are aligned so that in the short window of the equinox, such a trick is possible. I did in the school kitchen today four times in a row and two other people did as well.

Being a 21st century researcher, of course I had to cross-check with Google. Sure enough, plenty of commentary, mostly skeptical. One said: "Apparently this derives from the notion that due to the sun's equidistant position between the poles of the earth at the time of the equinox, special gravitational forces apply." But then went on to question why it wouldn’t work at the autumnal equinox and then claimed (with photo “proof”) to have balanced an egg three weeks before the Equinox. And why eggs? Some suspicious connection with the Easter bunny (eggs?) and the Ascension (eggs?) and the whole convoluted history of ancient fertility rites hidden beneath the Christian overlays (yes, eggs). Add to that the claim that the Chinese (not traditionally Christians) first noted the raw egg balancing act and that there’s no obvious reason while equal nights and days would affect gravitational pull and there’s every reason to be suspicious.

But why let mere facts spoil all the fun? Gather the friends or family around the table and get to work on the egg-balancing contest. In any event, it’s a challenge to balance it and a thrill to succeed. Just the kind of pointless activity that I love. Try it!

Monday, March 19, 2012

What's Your Problem?

What do you do with those problems that won’t go away? I’m not talking about that difficult kid in your class, your 30-year-old child still living with you or your proverbial mother-in-law. I mean those parts of yourself that you thought you would eventually fix through therapy, meditation, Pilates or general maturation. The things that keep popping up in your face and taunting you with, “Ha! Fat chance! I’m here to stay!”

And so they are. Carl Jung wrote:

“The serious problems in life, however, are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seem to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly…"

Wise words indeed and the rest of the essay (titled “The Stages of Life”) is well worth reading. Years later, James Hillman, for many years the director of the Jung Insitute in Zurich and then the naughty bad boy of psychology for daring to keep the thinking moving beyond the accepted dogma, tackles the same subject (p. 181 Inter Views):

“Problems are secret blessings, not so much problems as emblems, like Renaissance emblemata showing a terrible impossible group of intertwined images that don’t make sense and yet are the motto, the coat of arms, the basic family raised to the dignity of an emblem which sustains…Problems sustain us—maybe that’s why they don’t go away. What would a life be without them? Complete tranquilized and loveless, too. There is a secret love hiding in each problem…”

This is comforting news when hit over the head yet again with the same doubts/hurts/ confusions you had when you were ten, twenty or fifty. I liked the idea of a Coat of Arms and began to try to draw and name my own in my secret language: The Cazadero Syndrome, The Pole Vault Announcement, The Faker Musician, The Mr. Nice Guy, The I-Should- Be-on- TED, and more, that “terrible impossible group of interwined images” that keep driving me crazy and send me into a spin of self-doubt and low self-esteem. I can modify them, move them from foreground to background, briefly accept them, imagine I’ve moved beyond them, but invariably they come back to haunt me. Ain’t no escape. Jung and Hillman are suggesting that’s just the way it is. And maybe even a good thing.

When all is said and done, it does appear that our particular problems are necessary to everything that is of value in the way we’re put together. Not to get overly confessional, but I can give one example. The Cazadero Syndrome refers to Cazadero Music Camp where I worked with kids for six glorious summers back in the ‘80’s. I loved it, it used a lot of what I had to offer, I felt part of the community and my classes with kids were fun and engaging. But I noticed that at the end of each session, when the buses were idling and the kids saying goodbye to their teachers, that virtually no one came personally to me to say goodbye. It’s not that they disliked me, just that I had connected to the group as a whole, but not made any deep personal connection with individual kids. All these years later, I still feel the shadow of the Cazadero Syndrome steal over me when it’s the last day of school and the middle schoolers are running around getting kids and teachers to sign their yearbooks. Suddenly I’m the boy in the corner and no one is asking me to dance. Do you hear the violins playing here?

So I have to admit that I’m more of a forest than a trees kind-of-guy, that I have good skills with moving whole groups, but don’t tend to hang out with individual kids and just shoot the breeze. It’s not quite “I love humanity, it’s just people I can’t stand,” but I tend to focus on the larger issues, a more abstract love and appreciation than talking baseball averages with a fan. And yes, I can try to do better and modify it and I have, but it takes an effort. Why? I don’t really get to ask or answer. My job is just keep it in the conversation and enjoy the forest even as I try to notice each tree just a little bit more.

So next time your own recurring problems plans a sneak attack, place it on your Coat of Arms and welcome it back. “So nice to see you again. Can’t say I missed you, but hey, here you are on my family crest, so I know you belong. Let’s have a cup of tea, shall we?”

Start with Love

In my recent workshop for teachers, the discussion turned to children’s crying need for clear boundaries and useful structures. One participant told of receiving hate mail from parents because she used the word “rules” with the kids. Now there’s all sorts of reasons kids have trouble with boundaries, but the worst is New Age parents who are worried about restricting their children’s freedom to express themselves and consciously choose to raise their children accordingly.

“Yes, my dear, you can decide when to go to bed even though you’re only three-years old. Your body is wise and will tell you. “

“Honey, if you don’t feel like doing homework, it’s probably because your genius lies elsewhere. You go ahead and follow your bliss.”

And so on. Follow the ‘no rules’ to it’s logical extreme and you arrive at:

“Are you feeling confined by your seat belt? Okay, you can take it off.”

“Dear, I see your need to express your frustration about losing the game by hitting your brother over the head with the tennis racket.”

So we spoke about the need for the kinds of rules and structures that help us grow socially, emotionally, artistically and the need for us as adults to offer a loving strictness, especially to the children crying out for some form and guidance in their young lives. And it was then that my friend and colleague Sarah Noll told how she disciplines a child by beginning, “First of all, I love you. We are having this discussion because I love you and want to do everything I can to help you.”

Brilliant! Because ultimately every act of transgression is a failure of love. A child not loved enough by the parents, not loved by the culture, not loved by the school. A child having trouble loving him or herself and the way they’re put together. And though strict adherence to rules can keep the social glue together and protect children from each other and their own worst habits, that’s just a holding pattern for the real transformation, the one that can only come about from genuine love. Bad behavior can be—and often must be—contained by rules and holding kids accountable, but the only solution for the failure of love is the presence of love. Since the end of the matter is love, why not start with love as well?

Sounds clear and seems simple enough, but it is no small matter to tell someone you love them and mean it. You can’t get by with a smiley-face-have-a-nice-day-love and you can’t just say it casually with your voice only. You have to really mean it and say it like you mean it. And that takes a lot of work.

Thanks, Sarah, for the reminder. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Snake in the Grass

Put a perfectly reasonable person in a school full of children after five days of rain and you have yourself a ripe candidate for membership in any fascist group that promises control of human behavior. Cattle prods, stun guns, solitary confinement, drugs, brainwashing through hours of TV—whatever it takes will be fine with you. Anything to control the exuberance of children who have missed their outdoor recesses.

It has been a rough week at school. The office bench of kids-sent-to-the-principal was standing room only and they had to wait until the fist-fight kids (a rarity in our school) had cooled down. Sixteen 8th graders entered the music room with post-play-production-let-down and find-out-that-afternoon-what-high-school-accepted-them-syndrome on top of the constant rain and I immediately knew it was a bad idea to arm them with xylophone mallets. So instead we made a circle and I had them beat their own body with patterns that released energy, focused energy, made coherence out of their chaotic emotions and connected them to each other. It worked. At least briefly.

On top of this all, a large hanging light in the art room decided it was tired of being attached to the ceiling and came crashing down on a table where children would have been working except for the exquisite timing of falling down during a recess. A pigeon flew into the library and got twenty kids screaming at the top of their lungs. TGIF never had so much meaning!

A couple of lifetimes ago at school when I used to have recess duty, rainy days meant kids coming into the music room to play Snake in the Grass. One kid who is “it” had to slither around trying to tag the kids running around. There was a bit of screaming involved, at a decibel level that made Heavy Metal concerts seem like Easy Listening. I probably could make a good case for retroactive Workman’s Comp for the damage to my hearing, never mind my sanity.  When I saw clouds in the sky on my recess duty day, I immediately summoned every prayer traditon I knew of to spare me this torture.

In the midst of all this, it struck me that the whole edifice of human society is held together by such a thin thread. You pass the Montessori classroom and see forty kids sitting in complete silence eating their lunch, so calm and civilized. But you know that if one kid got set off in the wrong direction—as in a pigeon flying in the room— the others could follow like a flock of birds and things could get ugly quick. Forty screaming kids versus three powerless teachers. And then there’s the 8th grade with their large bodies, complicated emotions and a teenage power (and in some schools, heavily armed with real weapons) and you got yourself another potential time-bomb waiting to go off. Add to the mix the whims of weather, earthquakes, viruses, accidents and it’s a wonder that we survive each day with our health and sanity relatively intact. When all runs smoothly, we take it for granted, but when the lights start to fall and pigeons fly in, we realize how fragile the whole show is. 

And so we humans have evolved all sorts of structures to contain the chaos. Some go the repression route, some encourage expression within the boundaries of form, some lean toward the fear, some lean toward the trust. But they all have the same hope— to give some shape and meaning to a life of rampant unpredictability and potential disaster.

As a trusting lilies-of-the-field kind of guy, I love to cavort barefoot through the wildflowered meadows and exult in the goodness of this life and the bounty of nature. But every once in a while, I am reminded that there are real snakes lying in the grass who wish me harm. So, my friends, step carefully, pay attention, walk through this world grateful for every moment of gifted life and hope that the snakes are dozing peacefully on the boulders. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Opening the Doors of Perception

 Driving to school today, I noticed something I had never seen before. It was a planted island of cacti in the middle of the road—O’Shaughnessy, to be exact, right by Glen Park Recreation— separating the lanes of direction. Not a big revelation, except for this startling fact. I have driven back and forth on this road most every day for 9 months a year for 30 years. And this was the first time I noticed it.

Now, it’s possible that it was put in yesterday and equally possible that it has been there for 30 years. How would I know? Why did I notice it today? Well, partly because the traffic was backed up and I was going slower. And partly just because.

Our brain’s filter system is a survival mechanism, picking and choosing from the torrential downpour of sensory input. We are hardwired for discrimination, programmed to notice this above that— what we can eat, what wants to eat us, for starters. And then on to who might befriend us, who might betray us, who might we mate with, who might we wish to mate with, but ain’t never gonna happen. So it’s no surprise that a little garden of cacti in the road is low on my list as I’m reviewing my class plans driving to school or anticipating the dinner I’ll cook coming home. But still it astounds me that I noticed these plants for the first time. What other marvels await me if only I stop long enough to pay attention?

Blake said centuries ago that “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”  Aldous Huxley used this quote in his book about his experiences with LSD and this was a popular book with my college crowd. Not that I had any experience with it personally—ahem!— but I “heard” that people often felt that the narrow doors of perception had been blown open and the world was instantly more magical than it seemed to appear. From that revelation, many of us were drawn to meditation and discovered that indeed, our capacities for attention and wonder could be opened wider and without any outwardly-chemically-induced-help.

The bottom line is that whether it be a cactus garden on the way to work, the crab apple tree blooming in the Arboretum, the hillside bright yellow with mustard, the world is patiently awaiting our attention. I believe that it is refreshed when we notice it and so are we. Today, the narrow chinks of our cavern are found on our hand-held devices that rob the world of our attention, to the detriment of all parties.

Next time you drive or bike or bus or walk to work, play a little game with yourself and see if you can notice something new that you’ve passed before but never noticed. And extra credit if you write a little poem about it. And just to be clear, I’m not recommending that you take LSD to help you notice.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Follow Your Bliss

22 years ago, inspired by the work of Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman and a growing “men’s movement,” one of the school parents invited eight men to begin meeting once every two weeks to investigate what it means to be a man. Most of us were ardent supporters of the feminist movement, but found out, like so many men in the country, that it wasn’t enough to get in touch with our feminine side. We needed a positive masculinity larger and more life-affirming than mere sports, beer-drinking, fixing things and macho bravado. We felt mostly estranged from our fathers and reserved our intimate thoughts for women, rarely feeling deep friendships with other men.

And so we began. After a few sessions of telling our life stories, we talked about our fathers. Bly lamented that the loss of working side-by-side with the father, a common practice before the Industrial Revolution, was the beginning of men’s isolation. Dad went off each day to the factory or office and came home exhausted, eager to put his feet up and read the newspaper. He was generally emotionally unavailable, didn’t attend to the details of child-raising and often just worked to bring home the bacon, rarely in love with the work he did each day. If we were lucky, we might catch him with a hobby that brought him more alive— building something in his workshop, painting pictures or playing music, hiking or camping. But as was the case with my own father, who had painted and composed music and even wrote some Ogden Nash-like poetry in his younger days, the 50’s corporate culture did little to support such passions and they often trickled out and atrophied. Meanwhile, the Moms often felt trapped in their own confining roles, dignified in their bearing of life and raising of children, but often feeling less than whole giving up the larger range of their possibilities—their love for science or their pre-marriage singing career or the thousand and one other things that can inspire the human heart.

Our men’s group has met faithfully for over two decades and last weekend we went on a retreat to discuss retirement. Four of the nine of us are “officially retired,” three more cutting back the workload and all of us thinking about it. One of the exercises we did was to make a wheel showing the things important to us and rating them from 1 to 5 (5 being the highest) as to how much we are paying attention to them. We then did another one showing how much we’d like to be attending to them. What struck me so forcefully was how close the two wheels tended to be— 4’s moved down to 3’s or up to 5’s, but it was rare to see a big leap. By and large, we were living the lives we had imagined. That was impressive.

Of course, throughout the 21 years, we’ve all had our fair share of death, divorce, depression and disaster and it is hubris to think we’re in control. The world has had its say in the matter and as we’ve sailed the stormy seas of a typical life, there have been days when the waves swelled and threatened to swallow us, when the rains soaked us, when the hot still days parched our tongue, when the choppy seas sent us reeling sick to the edge, when the sharks circled the boat with their menacing presence. But throughout it all, we’ve kept our hand on the tiller and our eye on the compass and did all in our power to navigate to the land of our dreams.

I imagine in many of our parent’s cases, much of the life they led might have been in the 1’s and 2’s and the life they had wished up in the 4’s and 5’s. The shift in generations came less from the increased commitment of individuals and more from a collective agreement that work and passion might be combined. Joseph Campbell described it as “following your bliss.” Amidst so much that we failed to accomplish, I think my generation can claim this welcome shift in attitude. My own daughters certainly picked up on it, carving their own lives from their interests, talents and aptitudes in faith that the money will come—or at least enough for food and shelter. And it has.

And so retirement for the men in the group has been—or promises to be—less the cessation of the burden of work and a time to play golf in Florida and more an opportunity to re-balance the mix of interests and passions, spend more time in the garden or travel or read or return to music or consult and volunteer in one’s field of expertise. Keep the hand on the tiller and steer into the hidden coves or linger in the harbor where once the relentless schedule kept driving one forward. Hard work, by the way, to have so many choices where once a job decided the balance by default. But worthy work.

I have more to say, but I gotta go to work. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Courage to Be Tender

“Shall I tell you what you have that other men don’t have, and that will make the future? It’s the courage of your own tenderness. “

What a beautiful phrase. The courage to be tender. This from D.H. Lawrence’s durable masterpiece, Lady Chatterly’s Lover in a dialogue between the lady and her lover (Chapter 28 for those curious). But the phrase applies equally to relationships with children. We all know how to scold children, to shout at them from the soccer sidelines, to threaten or praise them so they’ll get good grades, but where is the collective effort and courage to be tender with them? I imagine there is an etymological connection between “tender” and “tending,” as in tending to their inmost needs, paying attention to who they are and when they need a loving strictness or a courageous tenderness.

Lawrence’s passage continues:

"…and he realized that this was the thing, to come into tender touch without losing his pride, his dignity, his integrity as a man. 'I stand for the touch of bodily awareness between human beings,” he said to himself. 'And it is a battle against the money and the machine and the insentient ideal monkeyishness of the world. ' ”

Bodily awareness between human beings. Not a popular concept in the culture of litigation where our most necessary human impulses are reduced to the fear of our most depraved behaviors. “Since some people have touched inappropriately and harmfully, we shall banish all touch to solve the problem. And thereby create a new kind of depravity— the neglect of our most biological and human need.” And so to pay Paul, we not only rob Peter, but leave him hurt, in pain, isolated, alone, on the ground without any comforting touch. We make all touch suspicious and thus, lose our capacity to be touched by the world.

“It’s touch we’re afraid of. We’re only half-conscious and half alive. We’ve got to come alive and aware. Especially the English have got to get into touch with one another, a bit delicate and a bit tender. It’s our crying need.”

As an Englishman, he knew what he was talking about. All of this was written in 1928 and though on one level, our public attitudes toward the body and sex, “the closest of all touch,” would probably shock Lawrence himself, our Puritan inheritance of distrust of the body lives on, now in the form of teachers being advised “don’t touch children.”

And yet, of course we do. And the more tender and the more constant and the more loving and the more playful and the more affectionate, the healthier and more robust and more happy and more loved our children become. So when the lawyers come to the University education class to advise the next generation of teachers to never touch children, I suggest that the students hold their hands and give them a back rub while they talk. Teach them about our crying need and give them the courage to be tender.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sundays in Edinburgh

It was the Fall of 1978. My wife and I were at the beginning of a year-long trip around the world and had arrived at a Youth Hostel in Edinburgh. We settled in and awoke to a glorious Sunday morning with church bells pealing. We went to see about breakfast at the Youth Hostel, but none was offered and we were out of any food we had been carrying. So off we went to look for a market or a café or restaurant. Little did we know that in Edinburgh in 1978, they took the Sabbath literally. In our first pass around a ten-block radius, there wasn’t a single store of any kind open. Driven by our grumbling stomachs, we widened our search. No luck. We began asking everyone we met, most of whom seemed puzzled that we hadn’t prepared for this on Saturday. Didn’t we know the Sunday is a day of rest? I remember many weary miles later finding some bar open with a very bored stripper and grabbing some very dubious sandwich of sorts. In the rest of our European travels, we never made that mistake again.

I imagine things are quite different in Edinburgh in 2012, as they are in most of the world. Commerce and consumerism has conquered all and with so many of us permanently residing in cyberspace, the world is a 24/7 no-rest-from-shopping place. Banks and post offices still close on Sunday, as do schools, downtown offices and many businesses, so there is a faint echo of the notion of no work. And of course, some religious folks, like Orthodox Jews, still take that notion literally to an extreme, prohibiting turning on electrical devices, driving and cooking. (When I was in New York recently, I accidentally went on the Shabbat elevator, programmed to stop at every floor to accommodate the prohibition about touching buttons.) But for most of us—and here I confess to having joined the “constantly-connected-culture”—the weekend can feel like an inconvenient interruption.

So when I found out that the house in Sea Ranch I was retreating to with eight other people had no Internet service, it felt like a radical proposition. Two days off the grid?! I remember traveling to Ghana in 1999, a few months after I first began using e-mail. Five-weeks later, I returned to an Internet Café and discovered that I had—10 e-mails. In 2008, I went to Cuba and it took four days to find an Internet connection in a hotel. Awaiting me were— 185 e-mails! Quite a leap in a mere nine years. Not that I had grown more popular— simply that the mediums of communication had shifted radically. (And of course, the junk mailers now knew where I lived.)

“How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” is the catchy title of a funny book about relationships, but it applies to all aspects of our life. There is wisdom in the idea of rest and retreat, a time to pay a different kind of attention to the world, to step off the dizzying merry-go-round of hypercommunication and maybe, God forbid, feel bored for a few moments. Shift from the grab-your-attention glitz of screens and texts to what’s in front of your nose and who is at your side. And then re-enter the day-to-day refreshed from having stepped out.

Since this blog is titled “Confessions…” and I’m aimed for some measure of honesty and truth, I’m going to fess up here. I started writing this before my retreat, woke up at the retreat to complete the thought and was invited to join Linksys. So much for no Internet connection! “Might as well post this blog!” I says to myself and then step out to walk to the beach and join the real world.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Write It Down!

I don’t know about you, but my mind is usually Grand Central Station at rush hour, thoughts hurrying by like people with their heads down late for their train. Where do they come from? Where are they going? Who sent them? Such questions have been the stuff of Hindu and Buddhist investigation for millennium and as anyone who has ever tried to meditate can tell you, when you make the time and space to actually notice what’s going on in your head, it’s worse than you thought. At the beginning of a meditation retreat, it’s even busier than Grand Central, more like the L.A. freeway. But for me, sometime around the fifth day, I find myself for a moment on a lonely country road and have even managed to get out of the car, inhale some fresh air and sit down for a moment of genuine peace and tranquility.

In my life as an artistic teacher and pedagogical artist, my goal is not to stop the flow of thoughts, but to disintuish between them and note when a worthy one passes through. I know this is Buddhist blasphemy to discriminate like this, but it is the practice of the artist to stay alert to visitations from the Muse. Because my answer to where thoughts come from definitely includes a voice from somewhere else that calls to you. Not a general you, but a specific you who is partner to a presence from some other world. The Greeks used to call it the Daimon, your invisible twin who shadows you through life and tries to guide you to fulfill your particular image and destiny. Yeat’s captures that image beautifully: It had become a glimmering girl, who called me by my name and ran, and faded through the brightening air…” The detail of calling his specific name is significant, as is the fact that she ran away and faded out of sight.

Yeats continues with “…I will find where she has gone and kiss her lips and take her hands… “ suggesting that when you hear a call like this, you would do well to pay attention. Not only in the sense of dedicating your life to search, but also suggesting that in each visit, no matter how small or big, you stop what you’re doing and pay attention.

For example, I was improvising on a tune on the piano the other day and hit on a little phrase that caught my ear. I repeated it many times until I remembered it and then decided to write it down. It was a big deal, because I had to interrupt my playing, find manuscript paper, get a pencil sharp enough to write and notate what I played. From there, it seemed logical to keep developing it and before I knew it, I had written a little jazz tune. It sounds like a jazz standard from the 30’s or 40’s and for all I know, it could be! Sometimes the Muse appears to be delivering original material when it fact it is the distant echo made audible of a tune you’ve heard before but forgotten you knew! But at any rate, I had myself a little composition, which surprised me because it has been years since I attempted to compose something other than a nursery rhyme arrangement for kids.

Now on another day, I might have decided not to write it down, thinking I’d remember it or an equally inspired theme would come my way. But it ain’t true. The Muse is merciless—if you don’t grab the opportunity in the moment, it’s not going to come again. Well, yes, something else might, but you will have lost that particular combination of words or tones or dance gestures and that is a loss indeed. That’s why I’ve carried a $.99 Mead Memo book in my front pocket these past twenty years or so. From front to back is the list of things I need to do, from back to front, those inspired ideas or phrases that visit at the most inconvenient times. (In the British Museum are Paul McCartney’s first-draft lyrics to Yesterday written on a piece of scrap paper. I’m sure others have a collection of restaurant napkins or paper towels with brilliant things scribbled on them.)

Of course, writing it down is just the first step. Then comes the next task of shaping it into form, editing, revising, bringing it to a full-blown creation. No wonder there are so few artists in the world! Everyone has an artistic possibility, but to be at the mercy of your Muse and do all the work necessary to attend to the moment of inspiration requires a dedication and commitment that must be carefully chosen. And I recognize that one reason not to choose it is you’re following the scientific inspiration or new business model or new insight as to how to nurture your family. It’s a long list of human potential to choose from. But no matter what your passion or craft, pay attention to those light-bulb moments and write it down!

Now just yesterday, I had the most amazing idea for a blog, but since I didn’t write it down, I got stuck with this.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why I Love Children

Well, yes, there are those perpetual runny noses, the ear-splitting squeals, the sulky tempers, the whiny complaining, those bodies that just won’t sit still and a host of other behaviors that sometimes make a 60-year old wonder just how long he can keep company with the little darlings day-after-day. But when all is said and done, it is no secret why I keep coming back and why I love spending my days with children. For starters:

• Because they’ll give up a recess to sit and comfort their classmate who got bonked by a ball.

• Because they’ll sit mesmerized as Judy Garland takes them over the rainbow on the wings of song or Gene Kelly dances them through the rain.

• Because they (and here I'm talking about 3-year olds) will figure out fifteen or a hundred and fifteen things to do with paper plates—make sounds, balance them on body parts, skate on them, jump over them, skip around them, make Mickey Mouse ears—for an entire 30-minute music class.

• Because they’ll call up their 9th grade friends who have a day off and visit their old school, sit down spontaneously at the instruments and play the jazz piece from last year note-perfect. And then do it again for the elementary kids, complete with solos.

• Because they’ll stand in front of 100 kids and at a mere 7-years old, improvise fearlessly a scat-song to the tune Ja Da.

• Because they’ll hang back after singing time and ask you if you plan to take part of next year off again—and hope you’ll say no.

• Because they’ll actually take you seriously when you give the entire elementary school the “homework” of turning their parents on to the Nicholas Brothers on YouTube. (Close to half of them actually did it!)

• Because they infect you with their energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, strange but delightful perceptions, their intact sense of wonder, their laughter, their smiles, their polymorphically perverse sensorial engagement with the world, their joy.

All of the above was my day today. And I got paid for it. (And as John Santos once said when a kid asked him if he got paid for making music, “Weekly. Very weakly.”

But I saved the best for last.

• Because at 3 o’clock, I get to do carpool and wave goodbye to them. And it’s time now!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Christmas in London

Four years ago to the day, I wrote in my journal about a day in Madrid when my colleague Sofia and I took a walk with our friend Luz Martin. Sofia was some four years cancer-free and Luz had recently been diagnosed and was in the middle of treatment. Since that day in 2008, it has been a hard up-and-down road for Luz. Yesterday, Sofia called and said that Luz is back in the hospital for what looks to be her last days. And so I include this old journal entry as a bedside hand-holding memory from afar, the story I would tell Luz if I could be at her side now.

“March 4, 2008: I met Sofia and Luz in 1990, that marvelous summer when I first went to the Orff Institut in Salzburg and it pointed my life to where it had been secretly heading, into this international music teaching. They were both young Spanish students in their late 20’s studying at the Institut and they both seemed to enjoy my workshops. I said “Hola” to them one day and when they found out I spoke Spanish (which I really didn’t beyond my high school classes), they set to work to get me invited to teach in Spain. And there hasn’t been a year that has passed between 1991 and now when I haven’t taught at least one course in Spain and often many.

Sofia and Luz have remained dear friends all these years later, but their careers have branched widely. Sofia has become a world-renowned Orff-Schulwerk teacher and author, is a voracious investigator, hungry to learn everything she can and always needing to keep working with her big love, children.
Luz continues to teach music education at a University, but stopped working with kids and generally drifted away from the Orff world, finding another place for herself as a performer on castanets. As a result, our paths didn't cross as often as before, though we always had at least one visit whenever I was in Spain. I always thought it a bit of a shame that she seemed to lose interest in the Orff approach because I had always enjoyed her lively and engaging classes. So it goes.

But here I am in Spain again and this will be my first visit with Luz since she found out she had cancer. Diagnosed in September, she is in her second round of chemotherapy. I had seen enough of that monster disease to expect the worse, so when she comes out of her house with a metal cane, bloated face and recently-re-grown hair, I am not shocked. We greet each other with a warm hug and take off in the car for a trip to a park and an afternoon walk.

The weather could not have been more perfect. Warm, but not hot, no wind, a day that appears like an unexpected gift from the gods. Not the take-for-granted-perfect-temperature of a summer day in a mild climate or Hawaii all year round, but an unmistakable smell of Spring after a hard winter, all renewal and freshness. It is a day made for Luz to be out walking with her old friends.

And so we stroll through the rows of blooming cherries and Luz talks and talks (perhaps a little hyper from sucking on morphine lollipops). She starts talking about how today’s kids are not like we were—don’t know many folk songs, can’t recite poetry, can’t think well, don’t have respect for elders. And though some of that is true and I’ve certainly done more than my share of head-shaking about a generation raised by appliances, I can’t help but smile. Ahead of us are two old couples, each with their own metal cane and I thought, ‘Here we are. Three old friends who used to be full of fire when we first met in our late youth in Salzburg, probably impatient with elderly people, walking peacefully down the lane in the Spanish countryside behind some fellow elders complaining about the next generation. How wonderful is that?’

The conversation ambles at the same pace as our walking and eventually turns into the memory of Luz and Sofia flying somewhere together and Luz reading the airline magazine about Christmas in London. In the way of young people, the two of them spun a dream about going there someday and spending Christmas in London. Isn’t that one of the greatest joys of youth? That capacity to dream a future? And so here they are again, two friends who had grown apart, re-united in an unexpected way, fellow sufferers of the same disease bonded through the joint chemotherapy initiation. They speak the language of arimidex and swollen feet and changed appetites and that is enough to erase all the little hurts and betrayals and disappointments friends will always have between them. And now they stroll along arm-in-arm dreaming again, Sofia telling Luz how they will go spend Christmas in London and both of them smiling at the thought, once again dreaming a little piece of a future together, though now both of them knowing it will never come to pass.

We turn back to the car and as we approach the overlook of the parking lot, I stop and say: “Listen!” Usually, the “quiet” of the countryside anywhere these days is punctuated by machines mowing grass or cutting trees or planes flying over. But in this moment, there was just one sound—the orchestra of birds singing amongst the flowering cherry trees below. We stop, the three of us arm and arm, and just listen. Three aging friends wrapped together in the full glory of a Spring day in the Spanish countryside while the birds announce their clear message: ‘This life is meant for singing. Our bodies will grow stooped, terrible diseases may take root in us, but still the cherries bloom and send out their sweet fragrance. As you walk through the groves of olive trees, time will slow to a standstill and so will you stand still and listen to us sing. And your hearts will be glad.’

And so ended that little story. In the four years since I wrote that. Luz has continued to battle, sometimes up, sometimes down, mostly holding steady—until recently. Always hope in the air when we visited and both of us eagerly awaiting the day when she would be free from disease. But it doesn't look like that will come to pass— at least on this earth. 

Luz, you have suffered so much in your cancer body. Now is the time for you to be released, to fly into the light that is your name having left your imprint on so many hearts. We send you off with love and birds singing on a Spring day in Madrid and will meet again someday to finally spend Christmas in London. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

When Difference Is the Norm

I want to begin by apologizing publicly to Billy Greenwald. He was the lone Jewish boy in my elementary school and I believe my classmates and I made fun of him. It would be another four years before my older sister finally broke it to me that I, too, was Jewish. (That’s a story for another blog.) I believe when I found out that I was more grateful that I hadn’t known and been spared ridicule than remorseful toward Billy. But it’s never too late to own up. Billy, I’m really sorry.

I don’t remember us being excessively cruel, just that mixture of childish taunting and teasing and experimenting with the in-group and the out-group, that odious trait of building yourself up by putting someone else down. Kids trying to figure out where they were in the social hierarchies, what was cool, what was shameful, what conferred status and power. And a surrounding adult culture that either actively modeled intolerance or sanctified it with complicit silence. 

Distrust of the "other" is hard-wired in the animal kingdom, helping us figure out if what's different from us is prey or predator or something safe to ignore. But what is instinctive in animals gets complicated by the many layers in the complex human complex brain. The brain-stem shouts, “Warning! Difference here!” while the other layers can add their conditioned responses. In talking about intolerance, it’s a good idea to acknowledge the biological roots that developed for survival. It’s what attracts us to our own, the kids-in-the-cafeteria syndrome that makes us feel safe and comfortable and what makes us cautious and initially distrustful of the “other.”

At our recent Black History celebration, the head of school told the kids that we are a school of great diversity—people with different skin colors, economic classes, sexual orientation, learning styles, ethnic background, religious and political beliefs. He wished two things for each of us—that each of us accept, honor and celebrate who we are and equally accept, honor and celebrate who other people are. To value and respect difference. Noble thoughts here and a practice that requires we use our brain’s capacity to move beyond the hard-wired distrust and move into the frontal lobes of understanding, empathy, compassion.

I couldn’t help but think as he mentioned all the ways to be different that if each of us is different—and in many ways we certainly are—then what is the norm? To really see and acknowledge difference is to reveal that in fact that the norm is a convenient fiction, especially convenient to those who identify with the norm and in fact, often define it. The fact that a population—say Latinos or African-Americans or women— in certain towns, cities or states can feel like a minority when in fact they are a statistical majority reveals that many times the notion of “norm” is an expression of the power balance, of who’s in charge and holds the purse strings and gets to define what the norm is. Or a psychological mindset fueled by the chosen stories—Eve came from Adam’s rib and that’s why she has to stay in the kitchen. And even when nature suggest that one thing dominate—say heterosexual breeding or pine trees at a certain elevation, it doesn’t mean that the other ways of loving or deciduous trees don’t  equally belong in the biome.

My own life has been an investigation into difference. Starting with my Jewish blood raised Unitarian choosing Buddhism and labeled a generic privileged white male, I never felt a strong identity with any one particular cultural practice and ethnic heritage. This left me free to create my own identity, to search out and choose my own blend of values and claim myself as a world citizen. Since it’s the only life I’ve known, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity.

But I remember a deep discussion with my mentor Avon Gillespie, a middle-class African-American growing up in L.A. who stumbled on Bessie Jones and her Georgia Sea Island Singers singing on the streets during the Watts riots and his world stopped. He felt like he had come home to his essential identity that had been masked by his upbringing. And me feeling jealous, telling him that I would never have an experience like that when I would be struck to the core with the profound sense of belonging to a particular group. I’ve been to barmitzvahs, listened to klezmer music, traveled to Russia close to where my Grandparents came from and it just ain’t the same.

So I have a great sense of respect for an inherited quality of ethnic identity. And yet recognize that so much of the world’s sufferings comes from identities constructed in opposition to other identities. How to value the identity we have been given and equally respect the identities others have been given is worthy work.

But there’s more. What we get for free doesn’t carry the same power as that which we create and choose. We may identify with our race, religion, class, sexual orientation and more, but the essence of who we are is none of these. Ultimately, we are what we dream, what we hope for, what we do and how we do it and why we do it. We are who we love and what we love and how we love and how much we love. And since we all do that in our own different way, difference is indeed the new norm.

PS If anyone is friends with Billy Greenwald on Facebook, put me in touch with him.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Vintage Whine

March is here and my self-imposed February-no-whining policy has expired. Just in time for my trip to Edmonton. As you may recall from the “Kill-the Lawyers” blog, I was already grouchy from the crippling tire-iron-to-the-knees of common human courtesy that the litigious culture of insanity delivered in the form of “We can’t pick you up at the airport because of liability issues.” Combined with a ten-page form to fill out dealing with taxes and the news that airport transportation fees were mine to pay. So things weren’t off to a good start.

But I dutifully raced to the airport after a full day of teaching and managed the two-plane flights without too much problem. Except being stricken with an inner-ear pain because I had just gotten sick again from the San Francisco change in the weather—after a summer-like winter, temperatures plunged to the near-artic zone of 45 degrees and now my ear was hurting from some sinus imbalance. I arrived around 11:30 at night, but my green-tagged carry-on was sent out to baggage claim and after bouncing between two carousels for twenty minutes with the grouch-factor increasing exponentially, finally found it and made my way to the hidden-behind-construction Sky shuttle, to arrive at the hotel at 1:30 am, just in time to request my 7:00 a.m. wake-up call to prepare for a day of teaching at this Conference. Can you hear the whine here?

But to my credit, I did try to keep things in perspective. While waiting on the jetway for my bag that got sent away by mistake, the door opened and I was greeted with the –6 degree (that’s Fahrenheit—minus 21 Celsius) blast of cold air and within a mere 30 seconds, was cold beyond my endurance. My ear wasn’t too happy about it either. And I thought of the Inuit people of the real Arctic, tried to imagine them waking up every morning saying, “Damn! It’s cold!” and checking out their to-do list—“Hmm. Let’s see, what to do today…Oh, yeah. Survive!” I pictured them planning dinner. “Okay, it’s Friday. How about…seal blubber! Hold the arugula.” Figuring out fun Saturday activities for the kids. “Hey, guys, what do you think about—ice fishing!” By comparison, arriving later than I would have wished to my heated room at the Westin didn’t seem particularly whine-worthy.

So instead of vowing never to whine, my new thought is to keep these propensities in the dark, cool whine cellar and let it age. Take it out only for special occasions. And when the moment arrives, take time to sniff the boquet and savor each sip. Clink glasses with my fellow whine connoisseurs—“Here’s to our minor miseries!” Indiscriminate whining is like drinking rotgut— not good for digestion and no one wants to join you except some dubious lowlifes.

So even though the two-year old stil inside of us wants to throw a fist-pounding tantrum on the floor when things don’t turn out the way we want, our mature adult that lives somewhere in our community of beings bottles it up, sticks a prizewinning “Whine Board Control” label on it and carries it down to the cellar to store with all the other bottles of our litany of complaint and injustice. Yeah, my ear hurts like hell and I have to face too little sleep and two more flights tomorrow, but at least I don’t have to wake up and go out in sub-zero temperatures to go club a few seals. There’s always something to be grateful for.