Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Orff Olympics

The Olympics have begun and the air is a-buzz with excitement. TV screens in Sports Bars are filled with pageantry, motion and emotion as dreams are realized or shattered in full view of millions worldwide. Our urge to push our bodies to the limits of possibility, to defy gravity, to court grace, to run, jump, swim, throw far beyond what the average bi-pedal human can ever dream of doing is the stuff of high drama, given a stage and 24/7 media coverage. The three-year old on the playground monkey bars shouts to the parents, “Look what I can do!!,” and indeed, we all want to show off our physical accomplishments. So when Olympic athletes put in countless hours training their body and perfecting their discipline, we are in awe of accomplishment and are quite happy to pay them the attention they deserve.

And though politics can leak in—who can forget the upraised Black Power fists in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics or the horror of terrorism in the 1972 Munich Olympics—the general spirit of crossing borders as athletes worldwide share the field and pursue their common passion is intended to uplift. Of course, they are in competition with each other and countries are counting their gold medals, but amongst the athletes themselves, I’d like to think that the old meaning of competition — co-petitioning the same god—is in the foreground. An Israeli and an Egyptian who both run marathons or pole vault or play basketball may indeed understand and respect each other more than the people in their own culture who have markedly different interests and jobs. They share a common love, a common struggle against the limits of their field, a common lifestyle of practice and discipline, a common admiration of what their fellow competitors achieve. I hope that people watching the Olympics notice this and feel the way that these disciplines brought together in this international event can supercede all the usual cultural barriers of race, religion, political belief.

Meanwhile, tonight another kind of Olympics will begin that will get no media attention, no newspaper coverage, no affirmation that it is worthy of attention. Down in a retreat center tucked away in the Carmel Valley, some 100 people will gather from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuala, from Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain, from Iran, Quatar and Turkey, from China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, from Nigeria and South Africa. Instead of carrying a torch, they will pass down a xylophone mallet. Instead of leaping for height or sprinting for speed, they will be jumping, twirling, skipping, swirling for the aesthetic pleasure and beauty of the dance. Instead of manipulating balls or paddles for points, they will be using hands and sticks to coax beautiful sounds from bodies, bells and bass xylophones, often at lightning speeds and with intricate coordination. Instead of pushing against each other to win the medal, they will pull each other up to encourage their highest possibilities in learning better yet how to teach and reach young children in classrooms around the world. The Orff Olympics have begun.

Should the cameras start rolling and the crowds gather to watch, it’s just possible that it would ruin everything. The advertisers would descent, the product-placement banners would hang from the blackboards, the lessons would be interrupted for “a word from our sponsor” and the teachers might start teaching for show, prepped with make-up before each class and turning up their natural charm for the cameras. But if all the respective cultures were alerted that this is important stuff and paid the same respect and awe for a lesson well-taught, a song sung with heart and soul without a trace of American Idol expectation, a blues improvisation on the xylophone the astonishes the person playing it as they discover their buried musicality, if the people who make decisions in these countries gave this the same attention as the superstar athlete and aligned their politics and culture accordingly, well, wouldn’t that be a refreshing change. The children would certainly benefit from it and the viewers might just realize that they themselves might reclaim their musical selves that they sold to the devil of music consumerism.

Of course, I know it ain’t gonna happen. We teachers are going to have an incredible two weeks where miracles abound and not a soul will know or care anything about it. Except for the 10,000 or so children who will joyfully receive the fruits of the harvest.

Let the wild rumpus start!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Just Right

I woke up today thinking of Goldilocks. She seems like a random innocent little girl in a fairy tale story, but if you think about it, she’s a spiritual seeker. She enters the dangerous forest and dares to walk into the home of the three bears. From the beginning, the story is fraught with tension. When will they return? Is she aware how precarious her situation is? But nonplussed, off she goes to investigate.

First there’s the porridge that’s too hot or too cold. We know what that feels like, when life throws us into situations too hot to handle and we burn ourselves seeking nourishment. We read a book or go to a workshop or meet someone at a party and suddenly, our head is on fire, our old life is called to account and we’re faced with more change than we can handle. At the other end, we’re served up some old used dogma that’s passed through too many unthinking hands and heads, sit in the church service with everyone dutifully going through the motions, but it all feels lumpy and cold. And then we have the good fortune to sit down at the bowl just right. And so we eat.

Then come the chairs, too big or too small. That sense of looking for the life, the job, the person, that fits us. David Whyte has a good line, “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” (I think of this often walking through the tiny halls of my old familiar school after having traveled halfway around this big world to teach in China or Brazil or South Africa. But still, inside the classes with the kids and their large imaginations and boundless spirits and sometimes at the lunch counter with some intriguing spirited conversation with staff, the school size still fits.) Other things may be too large, demanding an aliveness from us that we’re not prepared to give in that moment. And so we go from chair to chair until we find the one just right.

Finally come the beds, too soft or too hard. The first is too comfortable, we sink down too deeply, no resistance and nothing to push up against (remember the fantasies about making love in waterbeds? It was ridiculous!), we find it hard to get out and going in the morning, covered in big fluffy pillows and down comforters and all pastel colors with pleasant landscape paintings on the wall. The next bed is too austere, our back hurts, we feel like monks in hairshirts with no conviction that pain is the path to salvation. And finally, the bed just right. Ah!

So on my 61st birthday, my mild vow is to stop complaining that I have only this and not that and come to terms with the truth of the life I’ve landed in being just right. Of course, I’ll keep tasting the porridge I’m served, try out the chair sizes and bed firmness, but crank up the gratitude for what comes my way and tone down the thwarted ambitions. I might as well enjoy it all while I can, knowing that the three bears are going to come home someday and chase me back screaming into the forest.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Next One

Tomorrow I turn 61. It feels less dramatic than the switch from 59 to 60, but hey, they’re all just numbers. My friend Kofi from Ghana is baffled by our obsession with birthdays and I can see his point. But when you’re an American from a Baby Boomer generation and in a contemporary society where everyone is the star of their own movie, complete with personal soundtrack, such things take on large proportions. It’s probably safe to say that there has never been a more narcissistic couple of generations and it’s just getting worse. People assume that others are fascinated by their Facebook posting about their salmon dinner or the details of their child’s toilet training progress, get angry at the weather when it interrupts their plans and feel personally affronted by the world’s non-cooperation when the train runs late. And to set the record straight, I am one of these people.

On the generous side of this trend, we all need to make sense of our lives, search for some hidden meaning in the things that happen to us and the things we choose to do. And so a birthday or a New Year’s celebration or an anniversary serve as markers in our evolution, a time to pause, reflect, take a moment’s rest on the plateau and look back at where you’ve hiked, take stock of where you are and look ahead to what’s coming up. And invariably, our emotional brain attaches some kind of judgement to it all. It was a good year, a bad year, a confusing year, a revealing year, all of the above, none of the above.

For my part, 60 had its share of significant markers. There were numerous hard goodbyes— to my dear friend Luz from Spain, my cat Chester, to The San Francisco School Elementary building, to my teaching colleague and alum student Nova unjustly let go from the staff, to my mustache and about 20 pounds (well, that was a happy one), to my friend Ed at the Jewish Home and almost to my mother-in-law who announced her departure. And then some glorious welcome hellos and new beginnings. First and foremost to my granddaughter Zadie, but also to my first jazz group, The Pentatonics, to my new book All Blues, to my alum students from 40 years ago at the Arthur Morgan School Jug Band Reunion, to nephew Ian’s wife Madeline, to my daughter Talia after 16 months apart, and to my mother-in-law coming back from the edge to join us for what we hope will be many years to come.

And then all the ongoing things that continue to bring pleasure and fulfillment—my 38th year teaching kids at the school, playing piano for my Mom and other friends at The Jewish Home, traveling and teaching, writing this blog, playing jazz, biking, zazen, reading, movie-going and so on. My teeth are a wreck and my hernia operation is now scheduled, but all in all, a year of good health and energy.

Duke Ellington once was asked which was his favorite composition and without missing a beat, replied, “The next one.” My former image of 60-years old was sitting on the rocking chair on the front porch basking in the glories of your younger years and chewing on your accomplishments like a contented cow. But all I can think of is how much more I still want to do. Not exactly the Bucket List of seeing the Pyramids or Macchu Picchu, but all the books I’m still hoping to publish, the jazz concerts I’d love to give, the talks at Education Conferences or Ted or Oprah, the opportunity to work with college kids, the musical studies I still dream about. My gaze is more forward than backward, looking ahead to what’s next on the list rather than back to what I’ve done.

When I was younger, I was a slow developer when it came to ambition, just kind of knocking about in college and the few years after it. But once I found something I was reasonably good at, I developed a hunger for more that continues unsatiated. Or rather satiated in each opportunity, but then eager for “the next one.” Not for fame or admiration or personal glory and certainly not for money (wrong field for that one!), but simply for the chance to keep honing the craft on the sharp edge of diverse opportunities, to be of service and give what I can in only the way that I can do it. If I have anything approaching a birthday wish, it is simply my hope that this work can continue and grow.

Now who wants to hear the details of my birthday dinner?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Postcard Project

A few years back, I had the good fortune to meet Camino, a music therapist working at a cancer ward for children in Madrid. The ward is an extraordinary place, filled with light and love mixed with the pathos of innocent children stricken by this disease. It is run by my friend Sofia’s sister, Blanca, and I’ve visited several times and spent a few hours sitting with kids at the piano improvising blues and other styles together.

Camino wrote recently to tell me of a 19-year old named Vero (short for Veronica) who has a difficult and complex form of cancer. Vero happens to love postcards and Camino asked whether I’d be willing to send some on my travels. Unfortunately, I had just returned from my trips with nothing immediately coming up, but remembered a stack of postcards in a desk drawer from other trips. So I began sending them to Vero one day at a time with little comments about the photo on the card or a little story about my travels to that place. One month later, I still haven’t heard anything directly from Vero nor seen her photo, but Camino tells me she is receiving the cards and loving them and will write soon. Of course, I’m curious to see her photo and will enjoy hearing from her, but meanwhile, it just feels wonderful to have a pen pal and think about what to send next.

Pay attention here, because this is an Action Item Blog! In a couple of days, I’ll be in a retreat setting with my Orff course and probably out of range of daily postcard writing. Here’s where you come in. What would it be like if everyone reading this blog sent one postcard from their town? You don’t need to say much. Simply write in English (or Spanish) something like “Hello Vero. My name is ________, I’m a friend of Doug’s and I live in __________.” Then say a few words about the place on the postcard and Voila! you’re done. Short effort with a big effect—especially if everyone does it. Science and common sense tells us that hope and love and any expression of caring boosts the immune system and helps us battle any disease. I’m imagining 25 or 50 or 100 postcards coming in from all parts of the world would really lift Vero’s spirits.

Of course, some of you younger folks may not know where the post office is and have to learn how to put on a stamp (don’t forget to ask the price to send to Spain) and pick up something called a pen and write with your own hand! But it’s worth it. Send it to:

Unidad de Oncología Pediátrica
Hospital Universitario Madrid Montepríncipe
Avda. Montepríncipe N. 25
Boadilla del Monte 28660
Madrid, ESPAÑA

Thanks in advance for your help. And have fun picking the postcard!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Confident Uncertainty

I’ve recently spent some time in cafés in Marin County and just happened each time to sit next to a couple of men talking. Now I don’t want to be too harsh on my own gender, but in each case, these guys could best be described as “arrogant jerks.” Not that they were talking about anything horrible, like racist or sexist beer-guzzling frat boys. Written down, the conversations were benign enough and even occasionally interesting. But there was something about the tone that felt off. Loud, show-offy, overly confident that whatever they were saying was incredibly fascinating and 100% right. Each trying to one-up the other or affirm their mutual superiority. Do you know the type?

I’m always trying to trace behavior to ancient hunter/gatherer needs and I suspect that unbridled confidence is essential to the male hunter mentality. As is an over-fascination with tools. “Hey, man, I know that this is where the game runs by, you see, they’re following some spiritual bio-rhythm that dictates their daily fluid intake at the waterhole. And by the way, check out my new spear, with a special drag-reduction tapered tip.”

Confidence is a good thing and a biological imperative as well. A Neolithic buddy wringing his hands and exclaiming, Oh God-yet-to-be-invented, I know I am not worthy of bringing down this waterbuck” was not your hunting partner of choice nor was the waffling I’m really not very good at this, but I’ll do what I can” type. When you’re in the act of doing anything, you need to exude outer confidence and feel inner confidence, even in the face of certain knowledge that you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. As I accidentally captured it so well in my song The Science Fair Blues“I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to show it to you.”

But after the spear-throwing, basketball game or piano recital, that’s the time for humility to have its say. Indeed, it was J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) who said “Life is a long lesson in humility.” I guess what bothered me about the guys at the café was the tone of “Look what I know.” Let’s face it. In the face of the overwhelming complexity of this world and the vastness of the universe, we know basically absolutely nothing. Not to stop us from grasping for something approaching a certain truth— of which there are many beyond death and taxes—but to keep us listening and questioning and investigating and revising. “All your questions will be answered” said one teacher at the beginning of an Orff training he was leading. “All your answers will be questioned—including mine” is how I start my workshops.

I have sometimes been accused—unjustly, in my humble opinion— of arrogance. From my point of view, the accusation mistakes a confidence borne from extensive experience for arrogant certainty. But it doesn’t work so well to respond with “You ignorant sniveling jerk, I’m not arrogant!” So I just shrug my shoulders in the Californian way and say, “I’m sorry you perceive it that way. It’s not my intention” while secretly thinking “You’re an ignorant sniveling jerk!”

So for the record, the one thing I’m reasonably confident about is my uncertainty and the one thing I’m certain of is the need for a reasonable confidence.

I think. But maybe not. On the other hand…

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Physics of Flying

After some two weeks away, I eagerly awaited the reunion with my piano. I shouldn’t have been so surprised when my fingers felt like lumbering bears bumping into the wrong notes and snapping twigs in the 88-treed forest. Music is nothing if not physical and when the digits lie dormant for awhile, it takes a while for them to get out of bed and join the day fully awake. So I took out the Bach Partitas and started cutting and slashing my way through them until some muscle memory kicked in. That helped, but if the phone rang for a gig in an hour, I would have been wise to turn it down.

But the next day, I started playing through some of the old jazz chestnuts and before I knew it, my fingers were flying through intricate paths with great fervor in a state of phalangetic bliss and let me tell you, there is no finer feeling than that. The body deeply rooted in the rhythms that connect us to this earth, both feet (barefoot!) firmly on the soil while the imagination kicks in and sends us soaring over the chords, dodging in and out of the notes to be avoided in the full freedom of ascending to the heavens. But not too high (remember Icarus?), always swooping back towards the roots, resting on tree branches, splashing in the birdbath on our journey to nowhere. No destination beyond the exhiliration of flying and the joy of unencumbered movement. And it doesn’t sound so bad either.

I suppose that’s why I love jazz, the physical and aural and intellectual embodiment of what it means to be free while still in this human body. The rhythms on drums made from animal skins and cymbals forged from the metals of this earth remind us of where we come from and who we are, mortals on the physical plane whose soul is connected to soil, in company with plants and animals, streams and stones. The chords on the stringed instruments take us to the left hemisphere of the brain, call on our capacity for abstract thought and call forth the sheer pleasure of intricate, nuanced and complex ideas, structures and systems. Then the melodies on horns and flutes and singing voices lift us in the air on the wings of our own breath, the exhales and inhales of the lungs so close to our heart opens that marvelous organ to the wonders of the feeling life. Our body-mind- heart, our physical-intellectual-emotional capacities all dancing together in a marvelous three-way conversation.

On some level, just about all music does this, but in different ratios and balances. 12-tone music falls short of stirring body-based rhythms, hip-hop is low on complex intellectual structures (someone just sent me a joke photo of a “rap piano” with five keys on it!), smooth jazz has had all feeling drained from it. I love just about all authentic music, but when you’re in the midst of a hard-swingin’ jazz piece with evocative harmonic voicings and progressions and the improvised melodies flying into the outer reaches of the stratosphere— well, there’s nothing quite like it. Especially if you’re the one playing it all on piano!

Now I feel ready for the gig. Give me a call. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Follow Your List

When the world finally wakes up to the worth of music teaching, I’ll be prepared for my Terry Gross interview.

“Doug, tell us, to what do you attribute your modest success?”

“Well, Terry, I can answer that in three words: ‘Mead memo books.’”

The memo book is a nifty piece of technology made by the Mead Company in Dayton, Ohio. It offers 60 sheets of 5 by 3 inch lined paper between cardboard covers, spiral-bound at top or side (I prefer side) and available in various colors—red, blue, green, black. When I started using them in the mid-80’s they cost $0.69.  Now the price has risen to $1.19. They have ridden with me faithfully in my front
shirt pocket these past 25 years, shared with my Niji stylist pen and in the last decade or so, my reading glasses.

In my desk drawer are some fifty books, the treasures of a memorabilia miser available for posterity, though probably the first thing to be thrown away in a post-mortem houseclean. But fascinating to see what I was up to in the day-to-day twenty years ago, try to remember the people whose phone number I listed, recall when I got such-and-such done. I picked one out of my drawer this morning and found some haiku written by the Calaveras campers! Serenditipous!

Here’s how it works:

• On the inside cardboard covers, important phone numbers—personal, inside front cover, business, inside back.

• On the pages from front to back, my list of things to do. A random example from 1987:   
            1) Call Lisa
            2) Dub tape for Avon
            3) Decide Xmas play story
            4) Make business card
            5) School reimbursement
            6) Guinea pig (What was this?!!)

When I finally do accomplish an item on the list, I cross it out. Sometimes I circle one if it rises in importance or I keep putting it off. When the page is full and all are crossed out, on to the next page.

• On the pages from back to front, inspired ideas for classes, workshops, articles, musical compositions, those little things that come to me at random moments and would fly away forgotten without my Niji pen and memo books. Also on these pages are directions to places, temporary phone numbers, notes from talks or concerts, etc.

Each book generally last around six to eight months. When it’s done, I go through it once more, sift out the inspired ideas from the mundane and re-type on the computer and move on to the next, usually a different color. And that’s it. The right tool for the right job for the right cost. Easy to carry, easy to store, no buttons to power off or on. Of course, I’m well aware that I’m a quaintly obsolete dinosaur in the brave new world of Blackberries and i-Phones that can do all of the above and so much more. But since it ain’t broke, I see no need to fix it and keep both the local Five and Dime store and the Mead Company afloat with my two books bought annually at a total cost of $2.38.

During my vacation time in Michigan, my memo book lay unopened on the table. But now back home with things to attend to, it’s back in its familiar front pocket reminding me to book my next flight, prepare my notes for next week’s Orff course, call the piano tuner and get fried tofu in Japantown. How do people get by without these lists?

Back in the late ‘80’s, my sister gave me a sweatshirt with a Joseph Campbell quote: “Follow your bliss.” A friend trumped her by making a custom-made T-shirt (in my own handwriting and as a surprise gift—no small feat!) that said, “Follow your list.” We need both. A list without the bliss is mere busy work, but to reach your bliss, I find the list indispensable. And so on to the day.

1.     Write today’s blog.
2. Fried tofu

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lunch with Lazarus

I was sitting at the Gourmet Dragon restaurant with my mother-in-law enjoying the most pleasant and surprisingly delicious lunch (may I recommend the Ginger Chicken with Stringbeans?) when an idea for a great screenplay struck. Contrary to the urban legend that everyone has a secret screenplay in their closet, I’ve never even thought about it—until today. And since I’m busy with other things, I freely offer it to the world with the stipulation that I get at least some credit and perhaps royalties when “Lunch with Lazarus” hits the cinemas. But since I’m so generously offering the idea for free, the least the eager reader can do is read the whole blog. So first, a little background.

Back in late May, I posted a piece called “Here’s to Life” about my mother-in-law Pam’s decision to call it quits, check in to Hospice and stop eating. As you can imagine, it caused quite a stir and a significant group of folks— her sister, children, nephews, nieces, friends—got on planes and gathered at her house for a collective farewell. It turned out to be a kind of living memorial service, the Tom Sawyer fantasy we all have probably had at one point or another of hearing the testimony of those whose lives you’ve touched. There was the expected mix of tears and laughter, acceptance and admiration of her decision alongside resistance and confusion and anger, night after night of a ‘last supper” that kept being postponed as she awaited a bed in Hospice. She was able to sit on her couch center stage and hold court as the house cleansing began, identifying each object, photo, journal, piece of jewelry, silver, china, the whole nine yards of a lifetime of accumulation and suggesting where each might go. When the bed in Hospice finally opened, most except my wife and her brother had left and they noted that she packed her bags as calmly and meticulously as if she was planning an overnight at a friend’s house.

Amidst many complications in this high drama was the fact that it was impossible for me to attend without canceling long-planned European workshops and equally impossible for my daughter in Argentina to come earlier than her planned date of July 5th. Having not seen her grandmother for over two years and somewhat planning her U.S. trip around it, she was heartbroken (those interested can read her moving blog on the subject: http://taliagoodkin.blogspot. com— May 31st post titled “Goodbye Grandma) We both had written private letters to Pam thanking her for all she gave and sending her our love, but still wished we could see her once more.

I was in the dead center of the ambivalent camp, at once impressed by her sense that she had reached the cadence of a long and satisfying 87-year symphonic work and why keep repeating the last chord? But also feeling that the music of our lives is directed by forces beyond us and we don’t really get to decide— except for the obvious exception of suicide. And deciding not to eat seemed like a kind of slow-motion suicide.

To cut to the chase. She spent a week or so in Hospice and quickly discovered that it isn’t easy to stop eating when your body is not ready for it and in accord with your mind. And so in consultation with various advisors, she came to the realization that God had other plans for her and she might as well pay attention. So she got a room in the Assisted Living place across the street, figured out a couple of details as to make herself more physically comfortable and today, walked out of her room, down the hall, out the door into the car, directed my wife through a complex maze of Ann Arbor streets, and walked into the Chinese restaurant with her walker to sit down for a lovely lunch. She looked great, her mind was as sharp (as it had been throughout this whole time), her spirits up. Before the lunch, I had played piano and sung with the people on her floor for an hour and she participated enthusiastically. After lunch, we went to her old house to sort through her piano music so she can get practicing again back in her new place. Quite a turnaround!

And so the screenplay. While eating lunch, I had the feeling that someone who so many had said tearful goodbyes to and already started feeling an empy place in their hearts for, had come back. And that’s when I thought: “What if a loved one we lost and mourned for and missed dearly could come back for one lunch at a Chinese restauarant to be with us again. (Okay, it could be Thai or Mexican or Greek—but no KFC or Burger King or Pizza Hut. The lighting is wrong.) What would we talk about? What would we ask?”

Well, lots of room for variation here. But I would make the ground rule that the living person can’t ask the deceased anything about where they’d been except for one yes or no question. Part of the drama would be thinking would question to ask and when to ask it. (“Do you miss me?” “Are you happy where you are?” “Do they have better food than this restaurant?” etc.) The rest would be spent asking all the questions you wished you had asked before the loved one passed on, from the practical “I’m still looking for my old comic books that you and Mom hid” to the deeper “Why didn’t we ever talk like this before?” The whole thing would be like a cross between Dinner with Andre and It’s a Wonderful Life and would need some careful casting (no to Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez). Maybe there could be four or five such conversations going on at the same restaurant with all the different constellations of relationships— siblings, parents-kids, friends, husbands-wives, etc. I don’t know— you’ll have to figure out the details. I just want the credit and a little bit of royalties.

But it would be an interesting exercise to create your questions for the folks you know that have gone on before you. I had a long time of saying goodbye to my Dad and thought we had covered pretty much what we could. But still today five years later, questions come up that I wish I had asked.

So there it is. Meanwhile, the conversation at lunch was convivial, casual and undramatic. But I was so happy to be having it. Welcome back, Pam!

PS For those confused about the Lazarus reference, consult your local Bible: John 11:1-45

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Barefoot Connection

After a morning meditation, I start down the path to the beach and the first thing I feel is the sandy earth on my bare feet. As I approach the water, the sand is just sand, unmixed with dirt, and then wet sand and then cool water. The world is coming alive through the nerve endings on the unmediated soles of my feet and I touch an ancient way of knowing, the way humans felt the contours of the land and water for millennium before the shoe was invented. Such a pleasure to be mostly barefoot for ten days, interrupted only by flip-flops on too-hot sand and Tivas for the town.

I’ve often told the story of the life-changing moment when Avon Gillespie, my Orff-mentor-to-be, arrived as guest teacher in my college class and opened the door to the life that was meant for me. What was the first thing he did? Motion to us all to take off our shoes. A simple gesture with profound implications. “This is how you will prepare for the magic to come. Begin by freeing your feet and your Spirit may follow” the unspoken message he gave us. In later years, he sometimes titled his workshop “The Barefoot Connection.” Many Orff classes continue with this tradition, but in these days of Smart-boards and insane lawyers preying on the Culture of Fear, many don’t. There was a school in Texas that outlawed kids being barefoot in class for fear of spreading Planter’s warts. (Just as many Texas schools banned playing recorders for fear of spreading AIDS.)

Avon and I were clearly on the same page. As an emerging hippie, I already was experimenting with toughening my feet to walk all sorts of places and the next summer traveling with my college choir, I was walking through the streets of Europe mostly shoeless. One amusing moment was trying to enter the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and being stopped by the guard, who pointed disapprovingly, “No shoes, no entrance.” Behind him was a painting of Jesus and the 12 disciples walking barefoot. I pointed, he looked and smiled—but still didn’t let me in. (You can see a photo of me from that time, complete with the long-hairded, bearded, Jesus look: )

Back when I began teaching at The San Francisco School in 1975, no one wore shoes indoors. It was a combination of an old Asian/ European custom and an effort to spare the school’s carpets. Kids in those pre-velcro days really learned to tie their shoes! Failure to do so meant most of their outdoor recess was spent struggling with footwear. Though that practice has long since ended, our music classes continue barefoot (or in socks). Movement in clunky shoes is like playing piano with gloves on and it gives a tone of intimacy and connection when all, including the teacher, are shoeless. Indeed, the last vestige of my hippy years is when in-between classes, I venture down the halls to the kitchen still barefoot. I’m sure some health inspector or administrator embarrassed by prospective parents passing me may call me to account for this soon, but I plan to enjoy it while I can.

Turns out that most of the things I care about have included taking off your shoes—Orff classes, Zen meditation, body music, sitting down to play Balinese gamelan or Ghanaian xylophone, Chinese foot massage. Sometimes I play jazz piano shoeless and have heard that Bobby McFerrin often conducted the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra barefoot. It really does create a different feeling in the body, a different tone in the social atmosphere, a different connection to the place you are, be it on sand, dirt, stones, wood floor, marble, rug, carpet. Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, a staid Anglican priest-poet, knew that a shoed civilization was losing contact with our Mother Earth and thus, the subsequent disconnection and alienation from our source.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod and
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod…

And so we finally arrived at the end of 10 days of shoeless bliss and drove down to Ann Arbor. The 100-degree- plus heat wave I had heard about had just broken and the temperature plummeted to the 60’s. So I put on shoes and socks to go to dinner and how strange it felt. “What are these big weights on my feet? I’m a prisoner inside a leathered jail!” Of course, after five minutes, it all felt familiar again.

But the next time you feel out-of-sorts, estranged from your Source, an uncomfortable guest in the house of this Earth, may I recommend a barefoot walk on a beach? It may not solve all your angst, but it’s a good start.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Handwritten Memoirs

Two more days left at the lakeside cottage and we’ve taken to re-arranging things. For almost four decades, we’ve been guests here of my in-laws, but now that my father-in-law has passed away and my mother-in-law is too frail to come up here any more, we’re re-decorating as if it’s our home. Finally got rid of that basket of 27 condiments taking up counter-space when all we ever used was salt, put away the flour jars that we never once used and so on. The kitchen suddenly gleams with renewed space, clean lines, everything stored in cabinets according to our own sense of logic. What a difference!

We’ve also taken to going through desk drawers and bookshelves and such and it is here that we unearthed a treasure trove of old photographs and letters. The letters include things like postcards we ourselves sent on our travels, negogiations with the cottage builder, memories of an ill friend, expenses from a vacation trip, even grocery lists. But most poignant is to see many of them in the handwriting of my wife’s departed father. Amazing how touching it is to see mere curves and squiggles that call up the character of the writer, regardless of the content. Small crumbs of immortality hiding away in old desk drawers.

You can guess where this is going. Yet another lament about the loss of handwriting in electronic culture. We are in the midst of a constant battle between ease, speed, convenience, comfort and character, craftsmanship, care, culture and the latter are losing ground every day. A friend’s son was telling about his freshman year in college and the lecture class he took where each student in class had a clicker to send in answers to the lecturer’s questions. That was the extent of his relationship to the teacher and the teacher with him. By contrast, he told about his high school math teacher who came in with Kermit the Frog on his shoulder and sang songs about quadratic equations while playing the ukelele. “He was one weird dude,” he told us, but he certainly was memorable in the way the click-connected professor was not.

At my own “cutting-edge” school, the decision was handed down, with minimal staff discussion and input, that every Middle School student will be given an i-Pad to take around to each class. I’m sure there are many exciting features of this technology and I’m willing to look into them. But at least in my class, I will still have them take handwritten notes and accept handwritten papers, which many students oddly seem to prefer. These papers not only tell me what the student knows, but passes on yet another corner of their character.

Why are we in such a hurry to erase ourselves? Who will be gathering “The Collected Text Messages of Jonathan Frantzen”? “Historic Tweets from Barack Obama”? “The Saved Voicemails of Meryl Streep”? Will we need to include our e-mail passwords in our wills for our grandchildren to comb through? Will they sort through our 6, 750 digital photos deciding which to keep? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. We were here, we left, let’s move on. There’s still the shirts in our closet, our CD collection (soon to be obsolete) and the like. And for my generation, perhaps there’s still a few letters kicking around in the basement or attic. Enjoy, kids!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Singing Down the Sun

Like the famous Agatha Christie mystery with the politically incorrect title, the guests at the cottage on Lake Michigan are disappearing day by day until only three are left now—me, my wife and one daughter. My exercise routine continues uninterrupted—the morning walk down the beach and up the big sand dune, the 1,000 stroke swim in the back or front lake, the eight to fifteen mile bike ride on back roads. Likewise, the daily trip to town for groceries, blogpost and e-mails, the time at the beach under the umbrella with books to devour. With the cooperation of beautiful weather, it has been the perfect summer routine to shed skin and reach some slumbering selves often buried under work.
But one thing has been noticeably missing—music.

Remember the ukelele I pulled out of my carry-on during my 9-hour layover at the Chicago airport?  While everyone walked by me oblivious to my implicit invitation to sit down and sing, I imagined everyone’s portable electronic devices replaced by ukeleles and huge jam sessions, chord-sharings, strumming techniques, happening at each gate. Face it, it would be great! And yes, yes, I know it’s practical to call your ride at the airport with your cell phone and okay, you can keep your cell phone when you get your ukelele, but come on, 90% of the calls made there are people just passing time and filling their insatiable need to feel connected. But don’t you think ukelele songfests would fill that need as well? Anybody with me on this one?

I bought my ukelele just after returning from Europe, inspired by my time on the bus in Nicaragua plunking away during long trips with the 8th graders. I had resisted the ukelele craze (now outranking the previous djembe and didjeridoo crazes), not from any particular stubbornness, but just because I was busy with other things. But after those bus trips, I was hooked, not only discovering some improvised styles that I liked, but loving the transportability and lightness and simplicity of the instrument.

The teacher in me can’t resist a little history here. It was a cab driver in Lisbon that told me the ukelele was originally inspired by a Portugese instrument brought to Hawaii by Portugese sailors. I’m out of Google range while writing this, but another storyteller I heard affirmed that fact. But of course, we mostly associate the instrument with Hawaii (where it is pronounce “oo-ke-le-le” instead of the more common, but mistaken, “you-ke-le-le.”) Indeed, one of the favorite songs from my recent jugband reunion was “Ukelele Lady” where the singer “used to linger by the moonlight on Honolulu Bay.” People outside of Hawaii mostly treated it as a novelty instrument, associated with strange people like Tiny Tim who "Tiptoed Through the Tulips" on the Johnny Carson show. Hard to know which was chicken and which egg, but the recent revival was certainly skyrocketed both by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the rise of virtuoso superstar Jake Shimabukuro. Besides performing musicians starting to take it more seriously, it is a music teacher’s dream, being cheap, portable and capable of accompanying some 10,000 songs with a mere three chords. At a recent Orff workshop, a third of the day was devoted to ukelele training.

So back to the story. With the social energy wound down, I took my little uke to the beach at sunset and sat on the dune trying to figure out chords beyond C, F and G. The ore boats were gliding across the light on the water (what my daughter Kerala called “the path to the golden sunset” in her 4th grade poem), some children down the beach were playing in the water, a deer bounded through the grasses. What’s that Wordsworth poem? “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, the holy time is quiet as a nun, breathless with adoration. The broad sun is sinking down in its tranquility…”  I found an exciting E-minor, A, A-minor chord progression and the sun was setting as I plucked the strings. I felt like a reverse Orpheus, singing down the sun and closing out the day with music, feeling the night descend around me. As the last glow faded from the water’s horizon, the stars began to appear and grow as the darkness deepened, with a few shooting stars streaking across the constellations and a satellite or two moving slowly overhead.

And as always, never content to just appreciate the moment, I can't help but think, “Why don’t I do this every night? Why don’t we all?”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pass the Popcorn

In the brightly-lit diner-like concession stand, there were photos of all the icons—James Dean, Roy Rogers, the Mouseketeers, Ozzie and Harriet, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and beyond. Behind the counter, the ubiquitous popcorn ($1.95 for a large), hot dogs, French fries, Coke, cotton candy, that great American cuisine that fit the size of the customers inside. There was a pinball machine, a jukebox and Jerry Lee Lewis blasting over the speakers. Outside, kids were swinging on the swings in front of the giant screen, cars were parked on little mounds with boxed speakers hanging from the window attached by wire to poles. The children sat in the front seats, the parents, and for a different reason, the teenagers, in the back. The screen lit up and lo and behold, there’s Mickey Mouse, larger than life! The drive-in movie had begun.

Is this a memory from the 1950’s when I first experienced the thrill, magic and downright weirdness of drive-in movies? It could be. But it actually is from last night at the Cherry Bowl Drive-in Theater in Honor, Michigan, where my daughter, niece and I fulfilled an annual tradition to see whatever they had playing—in this case, Brave and Spiderman. The first, a Pixar animation, was tolerably good given our low expectations and the second we don’t know. Since “dusk” in Michigan is 10 pm, we opted out of the double feature and Spiderman with its midnight start time. My daughter (27) and niece (17) are just getting too old to make it through. J

The Cherry Bowl is an extraordinary 59 years old, a last gasp of a bygone era holding on to every nostalgic string it can pull. (Call their number —231-325-3413—to get a taste of their hyper-50’s circus-barker like invitation, almost two minutes of chatter before they tell you what’s playing.) It boasts “family entertainment” only (G and PG), though often that means violence is fine, but sex a no-no. Approaching the kiosk, there are four Burma Shave-type signs:

1)    We welcome children 
2)    But we have none to spare
3)    So when you drive inside
4)  Please drive with extra care.

Ticket per person is $8.50 (for a double-feature, that’s a bargain these days!), you can choose between the umbilical cord speaker or turn on your radio and hope your battery doesn’t die and opt to bring beach chairs and sit outside your car.

In a lifetime of work related to teaching and music, I sometimes wish I could talk about my years as a busboy, apple-picker or construction worker, but truth be told, I’ve only had one job unrelated to my chosen field and that was at 16-years old in Berea, Ohio— as an usher at a drive-in movie theater. Every summer of my high school years, I visited my friend Bruce Crookston and when he got this summer job, he managed to get me hired also, at a whopping $0.75 an hour. We arrived about an hour before the movie, changed the towels in the bathroom, walked the aisles turning all the knobs to off so the sound from empty speakers wouldn’t disturb the neighbors, reported broken speakers (amazing how many drove off and forgot to disconnect the speaker) and picked up trash. Once the movie started, we roamed around for a while looking for trouble spots or shining our flashlights into backseats hoping to vicariously experience a little action and then mostly sat and watched the same motorcyle picture for six nights straight until we had memorized all the dialogue.

On weekends, we went into our high-action mode, equipped with cool walkie-talkies and entrusted with the responsibility of not letting in more cars than there was room for. One person was out in the field scouring parking spots, another at the top of the hill by the kiosk awaiting instructions about what was available and a third at the bottom of the hill waiting to hear where they were available and directing the cars with a flashlight. If anyone seemed too suspicious, we did the trunk check, often to find some sexy giggy girls awaiting their release.

I’m sure there are scores of books written about how the automobile changed history. All the decisions to build roads instead of more railroad tracks, the birth of the commuter and subsequent suburbs, the death of the small town downtown in favor of driving to the mall on the outskirts, drive-in fast-food, drive-through banks, drive-in movies (!), the creation of factory jobs and whole cities (Detroit), the outsourcing of those jobs (see Michael Moore’s Roger and Me), the need for more fossil fuel and the subsequent wars. Politically and ecologically, it has been an unqualified disaster. But who could have resisted our ancient urge to move and travel and exchange goods and feel independent, as free as the roads and gas stations available could make us?

Culturally and mythologically, the car has been a potent force in America. Travels with Charley, On the Road, It Happened One Night, family vacations piled in the car, hitchhiking, the post-graduate road trip. The car indeed became our mobile home, where we lived whole lives—carried on conversations where no one could get up from the dinner table, listened to music on the radio (and later four-track or cassettes or CD’s or I-Pod plug-ins) or books on tape, thought our solitary thoughts, looked in wonder at the passing landscape or explored the mystery of procreation while parking up at Lover’s Lane or at—the drive-in movie.

Though cars are everywhere these days, as a shaper of culture, we’d be hard pressed to find something more American. As these blogs testify, I’m a world citizen, appreciative of and enchanted by the ringing of the gamelan in a moonlit night in Bali, the gentle sounds of bossa nova on a Rio beach, the blare of bagpipes on a Scottish moor, the exuberant polyrhythms of drums and bells in a Ghana marketplace.

But none of it strikes home quite as deep as a trip to the drive-in movie on a summer’s night in Michigan. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Haiku Healing

Each time the wind blows
The butterfly changes its home
On the willow. 

I recently heard from a few friends about their unexpected misfortunes, one so horrible and unthinkable that the usual words of comfort and assurance simply weren’t available. Of course, I tried to say something anyway, but each word fell so short of the deep healing that was needed that it felt hopeless to even try. Especially by e-mail, where  words minus touch and tone and hugs and the little details of caring that help us get through life’s large storms felt so small and impotent.

And there is a timing to words of comfort. No one wants to hear about life’s closed doors being another door opening or God/Buddha/Allah/Great Spirit’s etc. grand plan when the wound is raw and bleeding.

But this morning, I opened a book to the haiku above and when the time is right, perhaps years down the line, this might help somebody somewhere. Despite all our efforts to control our life and protect ourselves and our loved ones, we are ultimately at the mercy of the winds of Fate. If we can miraculously imagine that each gust of wind that sends us spinning simply blows us to another branch in our willowed home, it might help us accept what comes our way. I’m getting better at viewing the small gusts that way, but know I’d be hopeless with the large ones that wreak unhealable havoc.

Friends, step carefully through this world and be ready to help those fallen by the wayside.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life in Seventeen Syllables

Browsing through the vacation cottage’s bookshelves, I pulled out Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku like attending yet another reunion. There were my old friends Basho, Buson and Issa and some of their familiar memorable poems about frogs, butterflies and fleas. Such a pleasure to remember this poignant and powerful poetic form, the Japanese haiku.

I first encountered haiku in some thin hardcover books in late high school (was that the Pauper Press?) and was immediately intrigued. Soon after, I found R.H. Blyth’s volumes with more detailed information and commentary on their Zen Buddhist background. When I moved to San Francisco and lived with my sister and brother-in-law, all three of us had begun a Zen practice and developed a passion for miso soup, samurai movies and haiku. Sometimes while walking through the city streets or Golden Gate Park, we would have “haiku contests.” No winners or prizes, but just the pleasure of attending to the world a different way and sharing it with your companions.

Sometime later, while camping with the SF School 3rd, 4th and 5th graders each year in Calaveras Big Trees, I initiated the haiku walk. The rules were that we had to walk in silence for a set period of time, armed with pencils and a pad of paper. The point was not to make up a poem out of your imagination, but attend to the world with all your senses. Listen, look, smell, touch, taste, take a snapshot of a moment and then capture it in words. Small was beautiful, no need for big epiphanies or dramatic feelings, simply notice something simple—the wind in the pines, the smell of the Mountain Misery plant, the cracking of twigs under hiking boots. No need to insert “I” into the occasion, but simply be the “eye” the sees and reports and brings the reader by your side to enjoy the scene.

And if you could follow the old Japanese structure of 17 syllables—5 in the first line, 7 in the next, 5 in the last, well, good for you. But since this structure evolved for the Japanese language, it didn’t necessarily make sense in English. Especially when translating haiku. R. H. Blyth felt this way, translating Basho’s famous poem to an 8-syllable reduction:

The old pond.
A frog jumps in.

Early in his career, my colleague James Harding worked in a school where the teacher was teaching haiku. One of the young students was thrilled when he “found” a haiku!

Frosty the snowman
was a jolly, happy soul.
with a corncob pipe.

Hmm. A case of mistaking structure for substance. Haiku typically have a seasonable reference and a sense of movement in the still image, a tension that leads to, or implies a punch line. The splash of Basho’s frog, Buson’s “butterfly asleep on the temple bell,” Issa’s “the man pulling radishes pointed my way—with a radish.” And one of my favorites: “The snail crawls two feet—and the day is over.” (Well, I guess you can make a case for a seasonal reference in Frosty and the corncob pipe as an intriguing movement in the image—Frosty’s smoking? Maybe that poem is better than I thought.)

So this morning, I had haiku on my mind and that’s all it takes for them to appear. And contradicting my own feeling that we needn’t feel confined by the structure, I did find the 17-syllable challenge intriguing. Like 12-bar blues or sonnet form, prepared forms and structures often sharpen the creative mind and aid rather than hinder the imagination. So below are four (are you counting syllables?) from my morning ramble down the beach and up the dune with my brother-in-law’s dog.

Footprints in the sand.                                  The morning lake sings
Early morning walk reading                         in whispers, then wind-whips to
yesterday’s stories.                                        an afternoon roar.

Bounding down the dune,                              Sand-covered, the dog
the dog pauses— and waits for                      washes in the lake, then rolls
his aging master.                                            again in the sand.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Looking for Stones

It’s vacation time on Lake Michigan. Most every summer for 37 years I’ve come here, courtesy of the in-laws wisdom in building a “cottage” on the Michigan shores and generosity in hosting the extended family. A beach on the big lake protected by the Nature Conservatory a stone’s throw away, a more intimate back lake (warmer for swimming) a short walk through the woods in the other direction. The folks who have peopled this house span five generations, some long gone, some recently gone and some, like granddaughter Zadie, enjoying her first time here.

I have my vacation routine here, some of which includes a self-styled triathlon. Walk up the big sand dune called the Sugar Bowl in the early morning before the sand gets too hot, bike the ten miles around Upper Herring Lake, swim a thousand strokes (yes, I count them) in Lower Herring. Then the balance of fun—canoing, Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theater, board games at night, —and necessity—e-mail at the Frankfort Library, shopping, cooking. It’s a welcome break to get off of the wheel of accomplishment.

But even leisure can feel like lists to tick off. Just because you stop your usual work and it’s summer doesn’t mean it’s Summer. One is just a season and a pretty backdrop, the other is a transformation. This morning, I started the walk to the Sugarbowl and decided to look for Petoskey stones. This was a ritual in the early days here, long since abandoned and partly because of their diminishing presence on the beach. But finding the stones wasn’t important. It was the way the simple act of looking down at stones short-circuited the dialogue in my head and brought me forth into the world. Ah! Here I am! It’s not San Francisco, it’s not North Carolina, it’s not the airport. It’s here on this beach in this moment. A little frog jumps into the lake. Splash! A large snake slithers through the grass, crossing my path (first one I’ve seen in all these decades). The see the sand imprinted with criss-crossed bird tracks, the shadows of the slender dune grass, the solitary butterfly flitting amongst them. Summer starts leaking through my thick, work-obsessed, protected skin and edges me closer to Zadie’s effortless sense of wonder.

The philosopher Pascal once said something to the effect of “The misery of mankind stems from his inability to sit in a room alone.” I’ve thought of that quote many times in Zen retreats as I learned to calm the jumping monkey mind and be content to just sit. But I think part of that misery comes from sitting in a room. Just an open screen door away is a world full of fragrant breezes, singing birds, crawling bugs and cool inviting waters— get out of the house and partake! Even here in summer paradise, we all can get stuck in our indoor routines and forget to go out and join the world.

Baba Ram Dass’s book “Be Here Now” may seem like an eye-rolling novelty from those crazy hippy times, but the message still holds— one moment of full presence is more difficult than the 12 Labors of Hercules. And modern life conspires against it. Our nervous systems are ramped up to hyperspeed and getting faster every day. The instant and constant documenting of each moment via cell phone camera robs us of a certain quality of attention. Not to mention the addictive texting and talking instead of looking and listening. Very little encourages us to breathe and savor, to be still and silent, to observe the slow crawl of a snail or descent of the sun over the water.

Needless to say, I didn’t find a single Petoskey stone, but stumbled onto something much more valuable— that remembrance of what it means to be. Here. Now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Circle in the Field

After gloating about my brief moments of privilege, I came back to earth to the kind of community I admire. The reunion mentioned in Life Lived Backwards was a great pleasure on so many levels— the 200-person circle of silence in the field before each meal, the high level of conversation at the meal tables with people just met, the little kids in hog heaven playing with the water hose, running barefoot in the grass, just playing, playing, playing as children were meant to do. Then the chores and work projects, everyone chipping in to prepare the meals, wash the dishes, weed the garden, work on the building, all that caretaking work that levels the playing field and erases that inflated sense of hierarchy and privilege— no First-class at the dish-washing or compost station. That lovely sense of all being in it together, all at different stages in the journey (all ages well-represented there, from 4 months to 94 years), but side-by-side splashing in the pond, cutting vegetables, drying the pots and pans.

My urban paradise at The San Francisco School shares many elements in common with The Arthur Morgan School. But instead of the murmer of the stream nearby, there’s the dull roar of the 280 Freeway just below. Instead of the watchful eye of the mist-covered mountain, there’s the fog-enshrouded downtown buildings. The kids serve the lunches Montessori style and have a classroom job, the parents come to two Saturday Work Days each year, but the overall feeling of shared chores and work is significantly less. On the other hand, I believe the richness of our academic program (and of course, that includes music and art) is several notches higher and the longevity of staff more impressive. The latter due to the intensity of the boarding school situation, where the teacher is at once a teacher and a house parent. On the negative side, there is a quicker burn-out— 13 years seems to be the record for an AMS staff member, compared to our SFS 40 years. On the positive, there is that sense of school and community as virtually the same noun.

At the AMS Reunion, we broke up into small groups by decades and listened to people’s testimonies about what the school had meant to them. One person recalled a day when he was walking down the path and paused, struck by the thought “This is as happy as I’m ever going to be.” Not in a pessimistic sense that it was all downhill from there, but in the profound feeling that the blend of community, work, play in the loving embrace of the natural world is the discovery of the lost paradise so many of us seek. That’s indeed what I felt many times when I was there and touched it yet again walking through the rhododendron dell to lunch, that sense of arrival.

And yet. Both formally and informally there also surfaced all the stories of mean, incompetent, abusive or just plain weird teachers, troubled kids, troubled relationships. The year that I was there, every single staff member including the head was new. The next year every single staff member including the head was new. And the next year, yet again. Amidst the serenity of the intentional community in the mountains was a great deal of turmoil, the usual bloody mess wherever groups of human beings gather. I’ve seen it in Zen centers, alternative schools, musical groups. From the outside, a carefully crafted philosophy of caring and human potential, lovingly cooked food, a practice aiming toward freedom and love, all the good intentions of intentional communities. And then the nitty-gritty reality of “who the heck moved my cheese?!!” Such places can sometimes get sidetracked in a self-congratulatory posture of “Aren’t we wonderful?” while the shadow of real human conflict grows and grows.

So it turns out that Paradise is not to be found in a place, a mission statement, an intention, but in each moment we become wholly ourselves in company with others. That takes hard work, lucky chemistry and a good deal of grace. And that can—and does—happen anywhere and anytime. Places like AMS and SFS don’t guarantee the realization of individual and collective human potential, but they do make space for it and are worthy endeavors, especially when they come to grips with the reality of how supremely difficult it is for us humans to share time and space together.

On the last night of the reunion, the Jug Band performed, so happy to be together again. But the show was marred by the organizer suggesting, after we had played but two pieces, that we cut our last few numbers (below the 30 minutes she had promised) because the proceedings had started late (not our fault). I powered through the best I could, but my band members were irate and the longer I thought about it, I was too. After the ceremony, a few of us went to the bonfire and sat for some time more with others singing whatever songs occurred to us. It was a lovely time, with a varied repertoire, good guitar and ukelele playing, tuneful singing, the fire crackling and the moon rising. Amongst many was the old song May the Circle Be Unbroken, which starts with such a promising refrain and then disappoints with its promise of paradise only in the sky and verses about mourning a mother. But thinking back to the circle in the field before meals, the joining of all who had dared to edge closer to paradise in the here and now, it feels like an appropriate sentiment to close here.

May the circle be unbroken!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Plan B

Remember those old math word problems?

“Train A leaves the station at 3:15 pm going 40 miles an hour making two stop of ten minutes each and train B leaves at 4:00 pm going 50 miles an hour and making three stops of ten minutes each. Which train will arrive first?”

I think they had the best intentions of cultivating our analytic, scientific, logical-mathematical and problem-solving mind. But let’s face it, real life is daily throwing problems much more complex in our face and we sink or swim according to our ability to think flexibly. Here I offer five of them from my past three days. This will be a timed-test, especially since all of these had time factors to add to the complexity and stress. Have your sharpened pencil ready and good luck!

PROBLEM ONE: On July 4th, nephew Kyle calls from the SF train station after an all-night train trip from Oregon because the bus he needs to get home to Sebastopol doesn’t run today. He spends the day with Karen, Doug, Talia and Talia’s friend Joanna. The next day, Karen and Talia have a 10:30 am flight to Michigan, Doug has a 12:30 pm flight to North Carolina, Joanna will need to get to a friend’s house on the other side of town and Kyle needs to return to Sebastopol. To complicate matters, Doug wants to visit his Mom before his flight and suggests that Kyle visit too. Neither Doug nor Karen nor Talia want to take a cab or shuttle. Solve.

PROBLEM TWO: Doug sits at the gate F2 in Chicago for his connecting flight to Asheville. When he looks up from reading his book, he notes that “Asheville” has been replaced by “Charlotte” on the board. The people at the counter tell him that the Asheville flight was changed to F3. Doug moves to F3. Next time he looks, “Asheville” has again disappeared. Upon inquiry, he finds out it was moved to F1. (All this without announcements.) Sometime later (the plane is now delayed), he looks again and sees “Asheville” gone from the board. Two hours later, he finally boards a plane. What are the chances that it was actually the plane to Asheville?

PROBLEM THREE: Doug arrives at his destination at midnight and goes to pick up the Thrifty Rental Car he reserved through Orbitz. When he arrives at the rental car counters, he sees that Thrifty is closed. So is Avis, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, etc. 

Questions: Why did Orbitz approve a rental car to be picked up at 10:30 pm when Thrifty closes each day at 6pm? How did Doug get to the reunion in the mountains an hour away? Will Doug get his money back from Thrifty?

PROBLEM FOUR: Doug refuses a GPS in his rental car because he wants to continue to hone his directional skills. He miraculously arrives at a cabin in the woods at 2am in the morning. But on the return trip, he senses with his inner GPS that he missed the road to the airport. He asks directions and finally gets re-oriented onto Route 26. But Route 26 has a traffic jam that is moving at 2 miles an hour for as far as he can see. The airport is 8 miles away and he has 30 minutes to get there. How does he solve the problem?

a)    He rides past the stopped cars on the left hand shoulder trying to ignore their murderous glares.
b)    He calls the airport and tells them please keep up their good record of two-hour delays.
c)     He stops at the Marriet and gets a room to watch movies all day to calm his frustration.
d)    He stops at a Marriet, asks for back roads to the airport, crosses yellow double lines to pass cars speeding like a demon and praying no cops are around and arrives in time to make his flight.

PROBLEM FIVE: Doug arrives in Chicago at 1pm with a three-hour layover before his flight to Michigan to meet his family. He has a leisurely lunch, goes to his gate, looks at the board and reads, “Flight cancelled.”He goes to Customer Service and stands in line for 45 minutes before being rebooked on an 8 pm flight. Question: How will Doug respond to this situation?
a)    Make a vow to never leave his house and only read other people’s travel blogs.
b)    Strike up a conversation with the woman with the T-shirt, “I (heart) Boobs.”
c)     Enjoy listening to his neighbor’s inane cell phone conversation.
d)    Call the Chicago Airport Commision to inquire why Chicago still doesn’t have free Wi-fi when almost every other airport does.
e)     Write a long rambling blog with the hope of transforming annoyance to art.

PROBLEM ONE: Kyle puts his bag in the car and buses to his friend’s house to spend the night. Joanna spends the night at Talia’s and Talia drives her early in the morning to the other side of town. Doug, Karen and Talia get in the car and pick up Kyle on the way to the airport and drop off Karen and Talia. Doug and Kyle drive back to SF to visit his Mom. Kyle drops Doug at BART that goes to the airport, drives the car back to Doug and Karen’s house and takes a bus to Santa Rosa. Simple!

PROBLEM TWO: Miraculously, it was.

PROBLEM THREE: Because Orbitz is stupid. Enterprise was open and had an available car.
And yes, because the credit card isn’t charged until you pick up the car.


PROBLEM FIVE: You guessed it—e.

Now I had a real point to make about the need to develop a habit of flexible thinking, the kind of disciplined practice the Orff teacher and jazz musician are engaged in, constantly coming up with Plan B, C, D etc. and carrying that habit over into real life. And with four more hours of airport time, it’s a theme worth developing. Really, I think developing the flexible, imaginative, responsive mind is just about the most important task of the 21st century.

But this guy’s phone conversation is driving me crazy (Hey! I got I-Tunes and ear-plugs! Plan B!), I’m really wondering what this girl with the T-shirt has in mind, my butt hurts from sitting so long, I don’t want to go outside in 100 degree heat and have to go through Security again and I’ll lose you forever as a reader if I keep complaining. Thanks for keeping me company. Isn’t travel fun?!

PS: BONUS LANGUAGE ARTS PROBLEM: After coming up with Plan B—listening on i-Tunes to Doc Watson (may he rest in peace—he just recently left us) until his battery ran out, Doug had a brilliant idea and sat on the bench between Concourse C and E strumming the ukelele he had in his carry-on and plotting his next blog showing how ukeleles will bring world peace and happiness. As the clock approached the flight time, he looked up on the board to see that it was yet again delayed from 8:00 pm to 9:30 pm. Translate Doug’s sentence below. Remember to use the appropriate tone of voice.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Life Lived Backwards

I’m sure we’ve all playing this little game with ourselves— if this hadn’t happened, then that wouldn’t have happened.” The life we’ve ended up with is hinged on little twists and turns of fate, most of which don’t seem significant at the moment, but end up having a big effect. “If you hadn’t had a sore throat and come home early from the movie, I wouldn’t have met you while talking business with your roommate. And hence, no marriage, no kids, no job at the school, none of this life I’ve lived the past 40 years.” Once you start reading your life backwards like that, there’s no end to all the things that turned you in one direction and not the other.

Sometimes the turns in the road are larger and one such turn came to me in my last year of Antioch College. The college had a work-study program that alternated three months study at school with three months working somewhere, usually as an intern or apprentice. I had already worked at a Summerhill School in rural Maine, an alternative public high school in Hartford, a traditional 2nd grade in Manhattan and now went to a Quaker boarding school for 7th-8th-9th graders in the Black Mountains of North Carolina—the Arthur Morgan School.

The Morgan family had deep connections with Antioch College. Arthur Morgan was president of Antioch from 1920-1936. His son Ernest founded the Antioch Bookplate Company and later the Celo Press and achieved modest fame in the alternative culture’s bible, The Whole Earth Catalogue, where his book Manual for Simple Burial was listed. Ernest’s wife Elizabeth founded the Arthur Morgan School based on a mixture of ideas from visionary educators Pestalozzi, Montessori, John Dewey and Gandhi.

From the moment I stepped out of the car in the Fall of 1972 and was greeted by 25 curious kids, I knew I had landed into something special. A community with a vision somewhat aligned with the 60’s revolution of consciousness, but more firmly grounded in the midst of a Quaker cooperative land-holding community, an eclectic educational philosophy and an actual schedule of classes (unlike my earlier Maine Summerhill experiment) mixed with chores, work projects, community meetings, hikes in the mountains and evening folk dancing.

My own educational philosophy, borne from the failures of my own schooling, the successes of Antioch, the experiments of the various schools I interned at and the ideas of John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, A.S. Neil and others, was still forming, but edging closer to a unified vision and the intentional community out in the country felt like what I had been searching for, a place where school was not a specialized set of hoops to jump through to collect random information, but an attempt to live a whole life and learn exactly what was needed at the moment in company with others. I didn’t know anything about Arthur Morgan at the time, but had I read his quote, I would have recognized the vision that was forming:

The ends of education should be that men and women shall have a strong appetite for living, a craving for truth, an insight into the nature of men and things, an understanding sympathy for human hopes, a trained and tempered habit of creative action which turns conviction into accomplishment, a comprehensive purpose which unifies life, and a spirit of passionate commitment which drives one to stake his entire energies and resources on bringing life into accord with his hopes."

Also developing at the time was my remedial music education. I had discovered Scott Joplin, the blues and was tickled by Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. So when I decided to offer some music classes, the idea of starting a jug band quickly rose to the top and off we went. I also met up with a drama teacher (soon to be girlfriend) and we collaborated with little pantomimes set to ragtime piano and an ambitious production of West Side Story As my allotted three months drew to a close, the kids, myself and my girlfriend felt it was too short and I was granted another three-month extension from Antioch. Enter the first of fate’s twist. Had I returned to Antioch in the winter, I might have gone off again in the Spring and missed meeting Avon Gillespie, the Orff teacher who changed my life. I also would have missed singing in the chorus that took me to Europe. Unthinkable both!

And I would have missed organizing and carrying through the infamous Jug Band Field trip. 17 middle school kids, four teachers driving a rented school bus touring the South for two weeks, from North Carolina to Miami and back, playing and sleeping at community centers, alternative schools, parent’s houses and the like. That’s a story worthy of a best-selling novel, but suffice it to say that it was utterly wild, crazy, fun, intense and forever memorable. I am astounded that I organized all this at a mere 21- years old in the days before e-mail, internet and cell phones. And thankfully, in the days before the lawyers took over the world. I’m sure I would be arrested today simply for thinking about this trip and how we did it!

Fast-forward to yesterday, the first day of the Arthur Morgan’s School 50th year reunion.
Some 200 alums gathered back at their old home in the mountains, seven of them veterans of the jug band field trip and four of whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years! Those bubbly 12-year olds now 52 and all of us hanging out and chatting as if it were the next day of the trip. That was pleasure enough, but when we sat around the piano with kazoos and spoons and washboard and sang the old songs, we could have powered Las Vegas with the electricity generated—and everyone remembering all the words!! Tomorrow we perform at the formal ceremony.

Comparing banging around on spoons and humming into kazoos with what the 17 Middle Schoolers my colleagues and I took to Salzburg last year (almost exactly these dates!) did, I felt like I had grown as a music teacher enormously. I told my old students that it was a mercy that we had no recordings of us because I’m sure we sounded like crap. They seemed a little insulted and countered with, “No, we were great! Remember we played at this place and the people were dancing on the tables?” And then it struck me that though in terms of musical sophistication and actual developed skills, the Salzburg group was a different level, the spirit behind both was the same. And 90% of what communicates and matters in music is the spirit, the feelings generated and the unbridled sense of fun in both the participation and the listening.

James Hillman’s “acorn theory” of development in his book The Soul’s Code suggests that our destiny is born with us and we live our lives backwards, aiming to bloom into the oak already in the acorn we’re born with. The qualities of our guiding image change and develop in nuance and sophistication with age and practice, but their central character is fixed and unchangeable. My work with the jug band at 21 years old and the Orff Salzburg group at 60 years old was one and the same.

After my six months was up, I did return to Antioch, met Avon and took my first Orff class, went to Europe and sang 15th century sacred music with the Antioch Choir and graduated from college. My intention was to return to the Arthur Morgan School as an official teacher and live the rest of my life teaching in the North Carolina Mountains. But Destiny had other plans. Before I left, my fellow teachers on the jug band trip had written a letter to the school Board of Directors suggesting that the current head (in his first year) was doing strange things, alienating students and withdrawing from teachers. The Board eventually agreed and fired him, but the new directors decided not to re-hire us long-haired agitators and thus, my vision was not to be. So Plan B was to go to San Francisco and find out what awaited me there.

Back here at the reunion, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that things turned out as they did. Of course, I was disappointed and angry at the time, but looking back, I can’t imagine it happening any other way. One theory, and the one I lean to, is that invisible hands are guiding these things and everything that happens, no matter how painful at the time, is supposed to happen. Another theory, and one I think about when bad things happen to good people, is that such things are completely random, but it’s the way we respond to them that matters. Had I been hired back here, I’d like to think another life would have awaited me as fulfilling and pleasurable and exciting as mine has been. But having lived through The San Francisco School, my wife Karen and daughters Kerala and Talia, it’s beyond me to imagine that other life.

Much food for thought here. But I gotta go rehearse with the jug band!