Sunday, September 30, 2012


It gives me great comfort to think that, the Tea Party notwithstanding, we are making progress as a species. I watched Annie Get Your Gun on the hotel TV last night and while I suppose that part of it was considered radical for its time, a gun-toting woman who could outshoot her man, it was terribly disappointing that by the end, she had to lose the contest on purpose in order to win him. Not to mention a cast of Indians who said “Ugh.” I wonder whether high school drama classes still put on the play and whether they take the liberty to change it. I hope so.

Today is my older daughter Kerala’s 32nd birthday and I’m proud to report that she and her sister Talia were taught to reach for the far corners of their promise, even if it meant consistently beating a man (their Dad) in Boggle, writing blogs pithier and funnier than his or playing basketball all-out regardless of the opposing team’s gender. How could it be otherwise? Why would anyone wish to hold others back because of gender, race, class, sexual orientation and the like? How can they live with themselves knowing that the only way to raise themselves up is to keep someone else down?

Well, they have and they do and perhaps they always will, but at least not with society’s wholehearted approval. We have a First Lady in the White House who models an intelligence, commitment, eloquence and talent equal to her husband and feels no need to hide it under a posture of deferment. We have women entering most every profession and after decades of practice, learning how to do so on their own terms and in their own gendered style. The differences in gender are real, manifest in the body, the brain and the heart, but instead of limitations, they are opportunities to redefine the way certain jobs get done, be they female airline pilots or male pre-school teachers. Difference accepted is a chance to enlarge the needed conversations and perspectives.

My daughters grew in a culture that encouraged the pursuit of any dream that announced itself. Hooray for that! But they also left home and set out in the wide world where other people think differently. One has had to deal with the arrogance of certain male attitudes in the workplace, the other endure (or enjoy?) the whistles of Argentinean men on the street.

And now my granddaughter Zadie has the double challenge of meeting people who may limit her because she’s a girl, others who may limit her because she’s mixed race. But for now she’s blissfully innocent of it all and the world is hers for the taking, making her way through it with a scream, a shout, a charming smile, infectious laughter, a whine, all the tools in her arsenal that announce: “You will never see me lose on purpose to make some man feel better.” And I say hooray for that.

So happy birthday to my sweet and strong Kerala. Wish I could play Boggle with you on your special day. By the way, next time we do, will you please let me win? 

Saturday, September 29, 2012


A friend recently sent me a one-word e-mail:


Good advice and well-timed. I shut down the computer, walked out of my Calgary hotel and ambled down to the riverside walk. Novelty is a balm for the brain that grinds its wheels in routine habit and this was just what the doctor ordered. Past the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s that shouts “You’re in Canada!” seconded by the Quiznos sub advertising its delicious “flavours.” Down  by the river, a group of men playing…cricket.  Now you don’t see that every day in San Francisco! New sights, new sounds, the slight dischord between a hot summer day and crisp Fall leaves— the tonic of novelty was working.

But the other popular flavor in the brain’s preferred cocktails is familiarity. Here were the autumn colors of my New Jersey roots mixed with the childhood feeling of aimless rambling, free from work and identity, nothing to live up to, so free to grow down. Between the mild excitement of the new and the comfort food of the old, all the re’s were kicking in—refreshment, rejuvenation, recharging, remembering, reminding. Which led me to the next one—the restaurant. (Hmm. Restore-rant. Related to “restoring” energy with food and drink? )

The sun was setting over the river and an enormous flock of starlings reveling in the twilight with their cacophonous chatter when I spotted Prego’s Italian Cuisine. I sat outside—without heat lamps!— with Miles trumpeting “Summertime” at just the right volume and toasted the evening with a Big Rock Brewery ale, followed by spinach salad and penne pasta. Another walk downtown to return to the hotel, an old Gary Cooper movie on TV and the reluctant re-entry into the last pages of Bel Canto, Ann Patchett’s remarkable book that I am re-reading with such pleasure that I simply don’t want it to end. A lovely evening.

Now, grammarians, a quick review. What do the following words in this blog have in common? Recently, rest, refreshment, rejuvenation, recharging, remembering, reminding, restaurant, related, reveling, return, reluctant, re-entry, remarkable, re-reading, review? We might also add: here, were, free, Pregos, Brewery, pleasure.

When the mind is free to follow its own fancy, a blog about rest can take a fast left-turn into the spontaneous re-occurrence of two letters. Maybe it’s better for me to be busy. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Angel of Mercy

If anyone doubts the existence of angels, consider the following true story:

“When we last left our dubious hero, he was walking like Sisyphus released from his burden. The sun was shining and all worries vanishing like the disappearing fog. He sat out on his deck and thought briefly, 'What if I re-arranged my life so that every day had moments like this, enjoying a leisurely lunch in the garden with hummingbirds buzzing and eating an apple I can wholly taste?' Sweet thoughts and in that moment, it all seemed possible.

And then came a visit from an Angel. (Or was it a Devil?) A voice whispered in his head from left field beyond left field, that is, a thought appeared completely out of nowhere, no obvious spark or association. It spoke clearly this sentence: “I believe you need a visa to go to China.” And so, faster than a speeding bullet, our hero fell from grace and hit the hard cement of stress and anxiety.

He rushed to the Internet to check and sure enough, China required a visa. He found a Visa troubleshooting organization, called a number and got the Angel’s right-hand man, who talked him through the options and then urged him to go without a moment’s delay to his nearest Chinese Embassy. And so off he sped, with the Angel gently reminding him to bring passport, plane ticket and hotel information.

Now to fully understand the extent of his stress, you need to know the following:

• It was 2:15 Thursday afternoon. At 10:30 am Friday morning, he needed to be at the airport with his passport to fly to Calgary to teach a workshop on Saturday.

• He would then return Saturday night and go to the airport again on Sunday to fly to China, where some 40 students were awaiting his three-day workshop.

• If the visa could not be processed by 10:00 am the next morning, he would have to wait until Monday. But wait! Monday was a Chinese holiday. And so was Tuesday! So no visit to China, a cancelled course, a cancelled airline ticket to be re-booked (and he knew how fun that was going to be!!) to at least try to get to Japan.

Jim Carey once quipped: 'The problem with real life is there’s no danger music.' But it was playing now as he drove to the Consulate, full blast. He arrived at 2:40, got his number, filled out his forms, got a Visa photo taken that looked like he was a murderer on Death Row and then noted that the Consulate closed at 3:00. If that Angel had waited just 20 more minutes to inform him, he would have missed it!

He turned in the paperwork and the man in the window seemed confident it would be ready first thing in the morning before going to the airport— of course, for $165. He was a bit worried that they might notice his flight went from China to Japan and deny the Visa because of the political turmoil. But the Angel stayed by his side, he got to the Consulate the next morning, picked it up and set off for Canada.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is proof that Angels are real.

PS And the moral of the story? This traveler (have you guessed who it is?) came to several possible conclusions about what it all means.

1)    He is a complete idiot.
2)    His life is completely out of control and is kicking his butt big time.
3)    He needs to stay home for a while.
4)    He needs to find an app that pops up like a large neon sign on his computer every time he books a flight that says: “NEED VISA?”
5)    Angels are real and his is merciful. Without that voice, he would have showed up at the airport on Sunday to the rude shock, “And may I see your Visa?”
6)    Angels are real and his is cruel. I mean, couldn’t he have formed the thought a month ago?
7)    All of the above.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sisyphus Unbound

It began with a meeting with someone who had come to our Pentatonics Jazz Concert and was impressed enough to inquire about future opportunities for kids concerts. My favorite topic! I felt my energy rising as I talked, left the cafĂ© with a warm handshake and went out to do some errands. I noticed a new lightness in my step and a smile starting to emerge. Was it a coincidence that after two straight weeks of fog, the sun had finally come out? Suddenly the world was shining brightly and because my shouldered burdens had started to slip away, everyone who walked by seemed less weighted down as well. “All things change when we do” said the old Japanese poet Kukkai and he was right.

It has been a brutal few weeks of pushing the heavy stone of arranging workshops, flights, book inventories, concert invitations and the like up the hill and everytime I felt like I reached the summit, in came 10 e-mails with action items and deadlines. Down the stone rolled to the bottom of the hill and off I went again. Sisyphus, I know exactly how you must have felt.

But today, on the verge of two weeks of travels, the stone stayed balanced on the top and I could stretch and feel a taste of the freedom of actually living instead of constantly preparing to live.  Heck, maybe I’ll just push it off the other side— it really is exhausting rolling that thing uphill day after day! But dream on. Ain’t no joyful livin’ in today’s world without the ant-like patience and detail work of arranging things. At least in my field of music teaching and music concerts. And as I’ve written several times recently (Seed Planting/ Bean Counting, for example), the ant’s meticulous labor and the grasshopper’s spontaneous fiddling each carry their own pleasure. (I can feel my high school English teacher breathing down my neck here, red pencil poised: “How did the ant and grasshopper get mixed up with Sisyphus? And wouldn’t they both be crushed when the stone rolled down? No mixed metaphors, young man! “)

Complaining to my men’s group buddies last night, one of them mentioned the closing sentence to Camus’ essay, where he compared the old Greek myth to the countless business tasks of contemporary society, If I remember correctly from high school English class, the essay was mostly about the absurdity and futility of modern life. And yet he closes thus:

“The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Well, maybe. But my happiness came from the moment of release, about to board the plane to Calgary, Beijing, Yokohama and Tokyo to do the real work I’m meant to do.

But first I gotta pack.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Techno Denial

Yesterday I had a blood-curdling phone fight with United Airlines. A long-standing Gold Card member, I had hoped for some deferential treatment with a complicated request and instead was treated as if I had entered their office with dog crap on my shoe. And why beat around the bush? It was Ms. Velasquez, a supervisor in Chicago, who began the conversation with a tone that made Hard-Hearted Hannah (the Vamp of Savannah) seem like peaches-and-cream. (I hope some United Airlines Executives are reading this. Fire her!)

But here’s a bit of modern wisdom. If you get the Supervisor from Hell, simply hang-up and call again and you’ll get someone else. Keep going until you find someone with an actual heart in their body. All it takes is one person to say, “Sure! No problem!” And so three hours into multiple conversations that crippled my immune system, shortened my life span and made me consider never boarding a plane again, I found her. I could tell from the musical tone of her voice that I had a winner.

But even here, I never got to properly thank her, find out her name to recommend her for Employee of the Century or even feel confident that our transaction was completed because—you guessed it—we got cut off before it was finished. But apparently, it was finished enough to rebook the flights—or at least that’s what my e-mail said. Whoever you are, please know that I love you!

It took me another three hours of vigorous walking, tree hugging, helping other people with directions and retrieving tennis balls hit over the fence for all the angry chemicals that flooded my system to finally fade away. Of course, all those chemicals are just hiding around the corner. The moment I re-tell the story, I re-enter my emotional state at the moment (this is scientific fact) and out they come again. In lesser doses, to be sure, but there nonetheless.

So today the phone rang and I got one of those annoying recorded messages with the fake cheery voice asking me how satisfied I was with my recent service. A ha!! Normally, I’d hang up, but here was my chance to give feedback.

“Rate your answers from 1 to 5, 1 being ‘very dissatisfied’ and 5 being ‘extremely satisfied.’ Are you ready? Okay, here we go?

Was the person you talked with courteous to you?”

“One,” I said without a moment’s hesitation.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you repeat that?”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you repeat that?”


“Was the person you talked with helpful?”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you repeat that?”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you repeat that?”


“Were you satisfied with the result?”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you repeat that?”

And here I said the same thing (unrepeatable in public) that I said to Ms. Velasquez before hanging up.

So there you have it. Machines can’t take criticism. They ask for feedback and pretend they can’t hear you if they don't like the number. And when they went on to the next question, it was never clear that they actually registered the “one.” They just gave up on asking me to repeat it.

We think of machines as soulless, but apparently, they’re in deep denial about their shortcomings and unwilling to register constructive criticism. 

Of course, I’m talking about Ms. Velasquez here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Falling Leaf

The Autumnal Equinox has come and gone in its usual mild-mannered way. No fuss, no fanfare, not the wild bonfires of Summer Solstice nor the beseeching fires of the Winter one, just a whispered turn of the page that says what we already know: “Summer’s over.” The darkness is tiptoeing toward dinnertime, the air is turning brisk, the peaches on the market shelves look tired and the apples crisp and fresh.

Fall in San Francisco ain’t New England or even New Jersey, in fact, it’s supposed to be our summer heat-wise when the fog finally leaves. (Though this year, someone forget to send the fog the memo.) Deciduous trees are a rarity and when they do finally turn, it’s more November and December. But still you can feel the change in the light and the air and the vegetables at the farmer’s market and school starting up and the three-beloved Holidays in October/November/ December to look forward to.

Truth be told, Fall has always been my favorite season and it would be an interesting study to see how the seasons appeal to different personality types. I took a little test from a book my daughter is reading to see if I was an introvert or an extrovert and by the end, decided I was an ambivert. The Orff workshop music side of me loves nothing more than dancing in circles with large crowds of people and ask me to get up on a soapbox to say a few words about any subject to any size crowd and two hours later, you’ll be sorry you did. But the writer/reader/ Zen meditation student/ traveler alone in the hotel room is quite happy in the arms of solitude and that’s the one who welcomes Fall’s invitation to begin the slow turn inward toward falling leaves and cozy nights. Spring is Birth and Renewal and Summer is exuberant Life, but Fall is the first steps to Death, not the horror of violence or failing bodily systems, but the glow of life well-lived, pulling in the reins and basking in the final rays of the sun, knowing that after the Winter ahead, the leaves will bud once more, the earth turn soft and the cycle renew itself.

Perhaps this all means something even more now, being myself in the Fall of the grand life cycle. 0 to 25 years old or so feels like all Spring new beginnings, 25 to 50 the Summer heat of life, 50 to 75, still somewhat in the game and able to walk through the Autumn woods and reach up to pick apples, but slowing down a bit to savor the harvest. And then 75 onward is when Winter’s chill begins, but hopefully still with its moments of awe and beauty. And according to Hindu thought, then the whole show again and again.

Of course, I hardly feel like I’m slowing down, in fact, seem to be ramping up and just when I thought I got to the end of my list and could maybe take a stroll in the park to look for a turning leaf, I received ten e-mails requesting responses with deadlines. The myth of Sisyphus is more than a quaint old Greek story! Some years back, I had the good sense to chuck the list and go out anyway and wrote a little poem about it. I’ll include it here— and then get back to my deadlines!

Today I caught a falling leaf
and crossed a bridge to my childhood,
where my friends and I spent hours spinning joyfully
 in open fields chasing the spiraling leaves, until
dizzy with whirling, we collapsed
on the damp, musty earth, laughing
and then lay silently in leaf-caught bliss gazing
 into October sky.

Now my days are so calculated,
Punched onto computer clocks,
Time spent lining up and knocking down e-mails
like obedient toy soldiers.
No sudden gusts of wind to send me diving,
No curve or crunch or carefree collapse.

But today I caught a falling leaf. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

"This Was My Music!"

Many years ago, a colleague Susan Kennedy and I gave a workshop at a national conference combining jazz swing music and dance with the pedagogy of Orff Schulwerk. By the end, teachers were jamming on Jumpin’ at the Woodside on Orff instruments while others were dancing the Lindy Hop. I noticed that in the back of room, a special invited Conference guest was also dancing so joyfully. Her name was Liselotte Orff and she was Carl Orff’s fourth wife. When it was over, I commented, “You seemed to enjoy that!” and with an ear-to-ear grin, she replied, “This was my music! This is what I listened to and danced to when I was young!” As the movie Swing Kids testifies, jazz did indeed capture Europe by storm in the 30’s and 40’s and though it was outlawed by the Nazi’s, it went underground and like all worthy things, found the cracks and crevices where it could surface and bring its message of liberation.

Some time later, I met Frau Orff again, along with 16 Special Course students studying at the Orff Institute, in her home in Diesen, where she had lived with Carl Orff before his passing in 1982. (As you might surmise, this was a May/December wedding). It was a beautiful home and all of us were a bit in awe as we sat in Orff’s study and browsed his library. She pointed out the piano where he had composed Carmina Burana and I sat down and spontaneously began to improvise and sing “The Wheel of Fortune Blues.” When it was over, fearing I may have been just a trifle irreverent, I asked her if it was okay to play that and she gave me a big smile and exclaimed, “Carl would have loved it!”

I will carry these two poignant memories and affirmations of my work combining Orff and Jazz for as long as my memory holds out, now made yet more poignant having received the news yesterday that Frau Orff passed away at 82 years old. This is a great loss to the world of Orff Schulwerk and yet another moment of shock to feel that there will be no more meetings with this warm, wise, witty, spirited and generous woman. She has carried forward Orff’s work with great dedication and intelligence, creating and overseeing the Orff Foundation to further disseminate both the artistic and educational legacy. From royalties from Carmina Burana and other works, the Foundation has been able to sponsor teachers to give workshops in economically-challenged countries. I myself have taught in Russia, Estonia, Iceland, Colombia and other places because of this fund.

The last time I saw Frau Orff was summer of 2011 when she attended the performance of the SF School kids my colleagues and I took to Salzburg to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Orff Institute. She seemed genuinely delighted by the show and was so warm and welcoming to the students. And the Fall before that, I had the honor to attend her 80th birthday party (where the photo above was taken).

There are people in our life who are a near or distant presence, immovable mountains that give us pleasure when we see them and comfort when we don’t just knowing they’re there. I simply can’t imagine the Orff world without that living presence of Frau Orff. I’m grateful beyond measure for every encounter we had, for the tireless and dedicated work she did and for her constant generosity and infectious good humor. The only proper response beyond allowing some quiet moments of grief is to re-dedicate myself to our shared mission of continuing what her husband had started. With particular emphasis on helping teachers learn how to teach and play jazz. I believe that when the music is swingin’ and the dancing exuberant, I’ll catch a glimpse of her whirling and twirling in the back of the room.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Horn Tooting

You know what’s great about teaching at a school? The kids show up for class! It’s in their schedule, the clock hits a number and in they come, a captive audience for 45 minutes of their day. Whatever’s on your mind, whatever you’ve been working on, you’ve got yourself a guaranteed audience. You don’t need to send out flyers: “Great music class this Thursday at 9:45. Check it out!” You don’t need to send an E-vite or create a Facebook event or count R.S.V.P.’s "Who will be at Friday’s class? Check one: "

___ Yes ____ No ____ Maybe So ____ I’d rather not, but my Mom’s making me. ___What’s in it for me? ___ Yeah, right.  ____ I’m counting the minutes ___ Huh? 

I have a concert in two days and am in the midst of intense self-promotion. It’s exhausting! I’ve got personal e-mail lists, school e-mail groups, paper flyers, posted flyers and now, the grand Facebook experiment. I feel a little like a stalker and am just waiting for someone to tell me to leave them alone already! Put a restraining order on any further advertising. Popular mythology says, “If you build it, they will come” and I have been building this concept, vision, repertoire and practice as required. But experience says that ain’t no one gonna come if they don’t know about it. And hear about it over and over again.

This is a tickets-at-the-door event, so there’s no way to count sales ahead of time, just that uncomfortable moment when it’s two minutes until show time and there’s five people in the audience, three of whom are family members. Or that shocking surprise when you peek out from the backstage and the seats are full! Sending out e-mails, I have a long list of wonderful replies from friends who tell me why they can’t come. I could fill the hall just with “regrets.” But on top of preparing all the music and moving all the instruments and buying the snacks and getting change at the bank, there’s the maddening feeling of not knowing who will show up. And then when folks do, you waste all this time wondering why so and so didn’t come, especially when you went out of your way to see their art opening or go to their daughter’s 4th grade play.

Though I appear to be complaining, I recognize that all of this is necessary to discourage everyone from being a performing artist. Imagine if all your friends had concerts, plays and poetry readings! This kind of work is the guard at the door that asks you to show how serious you are, reminds you that the work is from your own need and tests the depth of that need separate from who receives it and how many and how often. Of course, we’re thrilled when the house is full, not only because we can deposit at the bank the next day, but because it feels good to share and the more the merrier. But we can’t count on it.

I suppose that’s part of why I’m still teaching at school. Full house every class!

See you at the concert! Or not.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Seed Planting, Bean Counting

“Be a seed planter, not a bean counter” says the ad in the airport. A nice sentiment and one that my work leans to. But not lately. For some four weeks now, it feels like bean counting is at the top of the agenda and without active intervention, it could easily keep going in that direction. I’m still trying to close out summer courses, book the last flights for the Fall’s workshops, restock my various book inventories. There often is some pleasure in this kind of work, but I’m noticing that without the creative work, without the seed planting, the bean counting isn’t as wholly satisfying as it might be.

As any farmer knows, seed planters also have to be bean counters and vice-versa. I’ve never been a farmer, but I admire from afar the whole life they live by necessity far from the over-specialized culture. The blend of creating, planning and caretaking, the mix of science, math and handy fix-it knowledge, the living through the cycle of seed planting, bloom, fruit and decay. In some ways, not that different from the life of an artist.

For no artist is a seed planter alone, bursting with creative ideas that just gush forth into the air and plant themselves. We also need to plan and caretake, blend science and math, see our seed through to its bloom, count and share the fruit of our labors (the books, CD’s, paintings, etc.) and accept the cycle of decay to prepare for the next potent seed. Most of the artists I know are their own agents, their own accountants, sometimes their own producers and publishers, their own distributors, their own bookers and trip planners. Some do their time in the arts administration office and some make the full switch. We all must be bean counters on some level or another.

Despite the ad’s insinuation, it is not an either-or proposition. It is the conversation between the planting and counting that is at the heart of the matter. And, may I suggest, order matters. That is, the bean counting becomes more satisfying when the seed planting and plant tending has been fully accomplished. Or more forcefully, the creative force must be strong enough to push through the constant invitation to merely count. Sometimes we think we’ll just get through the bean counting and then finally be ready for the seed planting, like a friend who was in the business world for decades and thought to get into creative writing at retirement. Never happened.

So time for me to let the beans rest unsorted for awhile and put my next book project on the front burner. Still trying to decide which of eight books needs to come next (any suggestions?),  but I know that the moment I do, my days will take on a luster that they’re missing now. That chosen seed will be watered and lit by the sun of my steady efforts and constant dreaming. Of course, some bean counting must continue, but it will be after the seed has been dropped in the earth, watered and tended. 

Happy gardening!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Happiness Is the Way

This morning, I woke in a strange room to the sound of the train whistle and felt instantly home. Stepped out onto a deck and smelled a beckoning Eastern Fall. Drove to a windowless room in an elementary school near Pitttsburgh and began the journey towards the miraculous, the ordinary acts of playing with others turn extraordinary through the little moments of beauty breaking through the protective armor we habitually construct.

Spoke some words tuned to truth, with humor and profound seriousness. And then the music, the carefully plotted succession of tones and looping rhythms hitting that life-giving groove that just won’t quit. “Hi-o Silver and Away!” to the airport and walking through the terminal, I felt my body blazing brightly with a happiness that has no cause, no repeatable steps to insure its return, simply the glow of grace descending.

Even in the midst of such blessing, the analytic brain is hard at work—“Where did this come from? How can I hold on to? What steps can I take to bring it back?” Blake warned about this.

“He who binds himself to a joy, does the winged life destroy.”

And then a recommendation:

“But he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

Pure Buddhism, the idea/ideal of non-attachment, of accepting what comes and flowing with it. A little gratitude is always appropriate, but not too much— just too much ego in “Thanks to (pick your Deity/ spiritual force here) for favoring me with a moment of happiness,” as if such powers have nothing better to do with their day than check in on me. I don’t think they care in a personal way and the natural world that uplifts me also wouldn’t think twice about killing me. But perhaps there are some lesser angels at work, some inner or outer guiding force that is constantly sending me signals to follow this and not that. And perhaps they are pleased when I have the good sense to pay attention.

“There is no way to Happiness. Happiness is the way” says the cover of my journal that I still write in by hand. In the rare moments when such a sense of rightness descends, it indeed feels that this is the way we are meant to be. And my first impulse after gratitude is to find a way to note it and share it. Happiness is fleeting and can’t be wholly caught in a net of words or a mix of musical tones, but when it comes, it feels good to tell the world in one form or another. And so this little attempt as they call my flight at Gate 53 in the Pittsburgh Airport.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Damn Everything But the Circus

I’m picturing a typical day in a high-school guidance counselor office. The counselor:

“What are you interested in, Maria?”

“I’d like to be a lawyer and focus on the environment.”

“Very nice. And you, Josh?”

“I went to a Montessori school and loved it. I think I’d like to be a preschool teacher.”

“Wonderful. And what interests you, Julie?

“I’d like to get some round cloth and twirl it on my hands and feet in various gymnastic poses. Either that or ride around on a unicycle and toss bowls onto my head. Or maybe stand in a big glass cylinder and roll colored balls around me in intricate patterns.”

Welcome to the circus. A place where people have spent countless hours of meticulous, disciplined practice doing completely useless and bizarre things— and then gone on to make a living out of it! The above were just some of the astounding acts from Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM show. There were men with large poles balanced on their heads or shoulders while other men climbed up them, folks doing Native American hoop dances, gymnastic feats that far outshone anything I saw in the Olympics involving breathtaking twists and turns and somersaults in the air while landing on beams held by others. All topped off by state-of-the-art lighting and technology and heavily amplified flash-and-dazzle music. The circus has come a long way from the Ringling Bros. Shows I saw as a kid. And yet, much the same—the circus tent, the traveling life, the unusual career choice of the performers and pushing the boundaries of the norm far beyond what we imagine human beings can do.

Yesterday I had lunch with one of the musicians, our Orff course recorder teacher Annette Bauer. She has been with this show for several months now and when I asked her how it’s going, she replied without hesitation, “I love the circus!!” Of course, what is sheer thrill for the audience is relentless dedication from the performers and a demanding and sometimes grueling schedule, but the magic holds from both sides of the stage. What can be better than sharing the fruits of everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve and see the wide-eyed open-mouthed audience thrill to your every move?

“Damn everything but the circus,” said e.e.cummings. “…damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning, damn everything that won't get into the circle, that won't enjoy, that won't throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence...”

Not a bad description of a good Orff music class as well. Minus the applause. Hooray for the strange, the offbeat, the extraordinary, the juggling balls in the air and the suspense of the crowd— will they be caught? Hooray for the circus!

PS If you see the show, Annette is the musician dressed as a flamenco dancer playing the killer electric recorder solo at the end.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Declaration of Independence

It’s Grandpa time with my darling Zadie and at near 10 months old, she’s hitting new milestones in the developmental climb. First and foremost, she’s crawling up a storm and getting herself upright, standing holding on with just one hand. So that developmental climb is literal as well as figurative. And she’s eating lots of solid food. She can drink water in her sippy cup and find her pacifier tied on to her stroller and use it as needed. In short, she has become increasingly independent. She sees something and she can crawl to get it. She’s hungry and she can pick up the offered biscuit. She needs to self-soothe and why, there’s the pacifier! The one missing piece is language. We’re still trying to guess what the heck she’s crying about and it will be nice to eventually say, “Use your words!”

When I first came to work at The San Francisco School, independence was the buzzword. Indeed, the Montessori Method the school was founded on (and we still use in the preschool) systematically teaches children increased independence, from shoe-tying, carrot-cutting and hurry-up-cake-baking to independence of thought as they make hypotheses and draw conclusions while working with the Montessori materials. In the elementary school, the children serve lunch and have classroom jobs and continue to develop their capacity to analyze, interpret, create, compose in all media. By middle school, their declarations of independence include clothing and hair styles, chosen music groups, taking the bus back and forth from school. In short, the journey to adulthood is a carefully gradated move toward increased independence, each earned by a natural or cultivated readiness and bringing it with it increased responsibility.

We admire the freedom of children, from the toddlers splashing naked in the fountain to the kids spending hours building towers with blocks or playing dress-up. But the irony is that every kid longs to be a grown-up and looks forward to the day when they can set their own bedtime, get in the car and go where they want, eat ice cream whenever they want and eat as much as they want. And it's true—these independent decisions are another form of freedom and one we adults indeed enjoy. What the kids don’t know yet is the consequence of going to bed too late and having to wake up early to go to work to pay for the gas in the car and then go to the gym to work off the calories from too much ice cream. With freedom comes responsibility and consequences. And that’s when we long to be kids again!

But the greatest freedom—and responsibility—is independence of thought, one that’s hard-earned and difficult, but perhaps the most important, especially in a democratic country dependent on intelligent decision-making. Those still sucking at the teat of their church or Fox News, waiting to be told what to do, what’s wrong or right, what’s true or false, who to vote for, are dangerous to the whole enterprise of democracy.

Well, that seems a long leap from celebrating Zadie able to find her own pacifier, but you can imagine why it’s on my mind as I think about what kind of future my granddaughter will have. And speaking of which, it’s time to go back to the game of me throwing her blocks in a box and her throwing them out. Symbolic? Already she doesn’t want to accept my block arrangement, but throw them out and do it herself. Way to go, Zadie!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Michelle 2016!

Continuing my goal to catch up to the Democratic Convention, I got to hear Michelle Obama’s speech last night. Nothing to say, but “Wow!!” She was at once warm, sincere, funny, poignant, impassioned, so smart and so clear about what really counts at the end of the day—character and real family values. I at once wished she was my Mom, my friend, my neighbor, my teacher and was so proud that she is my country’s First Lady. And redefining that term from a smiling, supportive, woman behind the man to someone doing amazing work in her own right. She stood up for real issues without apology, showed the spine the Democrats had slowly been losing over the years, with a posture that walked the talk and talked the walk.

Because of her work combating childhood obesity, she has visited by daughter’s workplace Kaboom!, the organization dedicated to building children’s playgrounds and getting kids out and playing. In fact, my daughter has met her twice and in the little promo video they showed at the convention, one of the speakers is identified as a Kaboom! employee.

So my question is this. After Barack’s next four years, is she allowed to run for President? Would he be our country’s first First Man? I seriously wonder if this is legally possible. Meanwhile, I’m getting my Michelle 2016! bumper sticker ready.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Doorways to the Spirit

I’ve never been a big opera fan. I did see the light opera The Mikado and later, Carmen in high school and remember being somewhat swept away in the color, motion, music and sheer pageantry of it all. But in general, the bizarre excessive vocal technique seemed something more for my friends and I to make fun of than aesthetically enjoy.

All this took a philosophical turn in the late 70’s when I traveled to India and Indonesia and saw the equivalent of their opera tradition—The Kathatkali Dance Drama and the Shadow Play Theater. Western operas suddenly seemed more bizarre than ever, such melodrama jumping back and forth to the extremes of human emotion, the ego enormous onstage and off (the Diva complex), calling attention to “Me! Me! Me! Look how I suffer! I will kill myself for lack of love! Or kill my rival! Or my lover!” The Asian equivalents had plenty of drama, but more the cosmic battles of the gods where Good vanquishes Evil, with cool-headed heroes maintaining poise and equanimity in the midst of the heated conflict. There might be a small tender love scene between Rama and Sita, but more a side story than the central piece.

I remember being in some place in Java back then where Indonesians were watching Marcus Welby on TV. My friend was translating their reaction: “They think these people are crazy, with their excessive displays of emotion.” Indeed, the Eastern aesthetic that I found attractive at the time was placing higher value on a kind of steady-state conciousness, the deep stillness beneath the rolling waves of emotion. I witnessed motorcycles crash into each other at intersection and the owners politely bow to each other as they dusted themselves off, people spill drinks on themselves and calmly dry themselves off with an apologetic smile. It was a refreshing change from the New Yorker City cabdriver mentality.

And the music itself reflected this, the cool, serene Javanese gamelan or the slowly unfolding Indian raga. The vocal qualities were on the soft side and the musicians expected to disappear into the music rather than call undue attention to themselves. Mellow drama instead of melodrama. By these standards, the diva opera singer seemed a weird beast indeed.

So yesterday was Opera in the Park, one of San Francisco’s fine traditions, a free outdoor concert of select arias five minutes from my house. I’ve gone for over a decade now and find it extraordinary to be in company with a few thousand people outdoors who are pin-drop silent for two hours running. In my advanced years, I’ve developed a taste for Opera and though by no means a regular at the Opera House, I’ve seen my fill of the classics and come to enjoy them, both the drama, storyline and theatrics and some of the most exquisite musical moments ever composed. (There’s an amazing scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption in which someone manages to get an aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro pumped out over the loudspeakers. All the prisoners stop in their tracks and again are arrested, only this time aesthetically. Of course, pure Hollywood, but the point is well taken. It indeed is possible that this music can communicate beyond any taste or training. Especially if it’s Mozart.)

After dropping off the picnic lunch at the blanket we had put down in the early morning, we went to an Obama Rally in another meadow of the park. On the way, we passed two hot conga drummers practicing on a bench, a sax player in a tunnel playing a jazz ballad and then a fiddle/accordion/banjo trio at the rally playing Eastern European music. Three different traditions, each with their own history, aesthetic, musical values that take some time and training to understand and appreciate. But at the bottom, despite large differences between Bulgaria, Bird and Bellini, each is a doorway into the spirit and why not enjoy them all? Not all life is opera, but sometimes it is and sometimes it’s a Broadway musical or a gentle bossa nova or a sexy, spicy salsa number or cool jazz ballad. The more we learn what each music has to offer, the more we are prepared to enjoy it when we need it.

And so I walked back to the blanket and enjoyed two hours wrapped in the soothing sounds of the strings and lifted up by the high notes of the sopranos. The fog was mercifully absent, the birds gathering to listen, the champagne was flowing and crackers and cheese passed around. A grand time was had by all as we were walked through one a doorway to the Spirit and emerged refreshed. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Plays Well With Others

I finally got to hear Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention. Wasn’t that something! (I’m looking forward to Barack’s and Michelle’s and other’s as well—but I’m always a few days behind the news!). Amongst the many things that struck me:

  1. The Length. I’m so sick of these TV debates with 3 minutes on each side and nothing of substance ever gets said or more thoroughly explored. Back in the days of the Lincoln/Douglas debate, they went on for three or four hours, then took a break for dinner and came back for another few hours. And people stayed and listened!
   Clinton’s 50 minutes was short by that standard, but long enough to follow several trains of 
   thought and develop a point of view. Might we recover a standard of discourse that can actually 
   handle this level of depth? As a teacher, I’m always asking my students to support their point of   
   view, do the necessary research and be prepared to back it up. Clinton did.

  1. The Arithmetic: There were a lot of numbers thrown around there, but again, numbers with a point of view. At the other end of them were real people that got real jobs, not only feeding their family but contributing something to the economy. I imagine Clinton was prepared had someone challenged the numbers and would have welcomed clarifying any on of the statistics. Unlike Romney pollster Neil Newhouse who said, “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
    And this strikes to the heart of the right-wing rhetoric, their faith-based notion that whatever they 
    so is true because they said it and they know how to spin it. Their whole approach is to bypass 
    the brain of the voter and go straight to their fear-center of people, encouraging them to jeer and 
    hate and protect their little corner of privilige, unencumbered by any bothersome facts.

    If we're going to keep teaching math in school on the basis that it promotes rational thought,
    let's elect leaders who pay attention to them. 

  1. The Fair-Mindedness: (Hmm. Not sure if this hyphenated-word exists. Can someone please fact-check?) Clinton was both honest and generous in thanking various Republicans for bills they had sponsored and passed and work they had done. He admitted our human frailty and the fact that even the brightest of us and most far-seeing can still be wrong. How refreshing was that?! He held Republican feet to the fire as deserved for policies or failed policies, but not with hatred or excessive character assassination. The Bill O-Reilly /Rush Limbaugh mentality that has risen to the top of the GOP has lowered public discourse to pre-kindergarten level. As a teacher, I simply would not tolerate that kind of talk in my class. By vilifying all those who disagree (while excusing any behavior of their own, from adultery to drug abuse and far beyond), they create a climate that no school in its right mind would ever accept. Clinton’s speech was a beautiful model of how you can strongly disagree and even poke fun, but still maintain an underlying layer of respect, especially when deserved.

  1. The Values: For me, the center around which the whole speech revolved was the word “cooperation.” He gave several examples of bi-partisan initiatives where both sides rolled up their sleeves and did what was necessary to get the job done, because it was a job worthy of doing. Some of my disappointments with Obama’s administration (particularly education!) can be laid at his feet, but a large part of any failure he has had has come from the Republicans who steadfastly refuse to cooperate because they “lost.” As Clinton remarked, their job was not to work together to govern the country, but to do whatever it takes to get Obama out. That level of mean-spiritedness is so far below any standard which an American can be proud of that it’s a miracle that these senators are not impeached for treason. In teacher terms, so-and-so “does not play well with others,” especially at a time when it is more crucial than ever. 
          I always thought that Bush and Gore should have settled the controversial election results by 
          being co-presidents. That’s what we had have done at my school and what a difference that 
          would have made. When Bush allegedly won the second round (many facts point to both 
          elections being rigged), he shocked even me by proclaiming, “The people have spoken and given
          me their mandate.” That is, by the most generous count, 51% of the people approved of his way
          of running things and the other 49% didn’t count. The slogan; “America for Americans— who
          think like me.”

I’m sure I’ve failed to capture what I’ve hoped to say here because the whole thing is so close to my heart it makes my head spin. I simply couldn’t endure another four years of a leadership that gives permission for soundbytes over eloquence, faith over fact, vitriol over empathy and cold-hearted competition over cooperation. As a teacher, it goes against everything I’m trying to teach the children. I want a leader who can speak, add and subtract, reach out and invite team-playing. I’ve had one for four years and I want him again. Time to get to work.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Naked Ladies

Got your attention? I knew I would—especially if you’re male. Driving around San Francisco with a bunch of guys, I love to shout out “Hey, look. Naked ladies!” watch all heads instantly turn, and then point out the pink flowers on the hillsides.

Yes, “naked ladies’ is the popular name for Amaryllis, a bulb of the lily family whose leaves die down and then produces a flower at the top of a straight thin stalk. The flowers are often pink, but can also be white or purple. And they happen to be all over San Francisco these days. Of course, it’s a bit of a misnomer. That straight thin stalk is not even remotely close to the appealing curves of the female body that are so hardwired into most every male brain that we will do anything to see a real naked lady. Anything.

I used to feel ashamed of my gender, apologetic for the Italian side of our nature checking out every female body walking down the street and feeling free to comment on it. Well, the comment we can learn to keep to ourself, but the impulse is so ancient and deep-seated that we are helpless before its power.

And why? Nature, that savvy source of our own nature that far outshines social conditioning, wanted to make sure of one thing only. “Hey, I went to all the trouble to fashion you as a species, so I want to make sure you stick around. The path from the party to the bedroom to the maternity ward begins with a glance and though you people will try your best to sustain the nuclear family and even reach exalted states of love and loyalty, the man will never stop looking.”

That urge for procreation of our own kind, so often the cause of shame in certain religious thinking, is actually a spiritual impulse and from it comes that luminous being we call the child. Children are those creatures that keep us from wasting our entire life bowling and make sure teachers have jobs and when their smile lights up a room, we are convinced they are a gift from the angels (even though that same angelic child my cry for six hours nonstop next to us on the plane). Still, though, note how the depiction of Jesus that spawned an entire European civilization was as a baby on Mary’s lap.

Of course, children grow up into teenagers who take up large amounts of space in the house with hulking bodies, lower the dinner conversation to grunts and remind us of what happens when hormones entirely run the show. And worse yet, teenagers can grow into adults who watch Fox News and shake their heads thinking that what they show is true. And then go out and vote for greedy, small-minded, mean-spirited politicians because they’re afraid of losing their gun. The spirituality of our species sometimes is a questionable thing.

But in addition to these hardwired lusts for female curves, and perhaps some comparable interest in muscles and a six-pack, comes a neo-cortex capable of elevating the conversation. Witness the glorious work of painters and poets and musicians singing praise of it all, not to mention our capacity to find pleasure in some pink flowers atop a thin, far from sexy, stalk. That neo-cortic layer is what we would be wise to pay attention to, to cultivate those spiritual beings we call children with some bona-fide education and help them learn not only to recognize a lily, but also learn it’s scientific name, its parts, its habitat. And also paint it, write a poem about it, admire it. And just maybe children how can distinguish a Naked Lady from a naked lady will grow to adults who can also tell the difference between truth and Fox news.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Every Fall, I read a Dickens novel. Been doing it my whole adult life and never get tired of them. I love the guy! Sure, his sentences are absurdly long by today’s standards and his women heroines just a bit too goody-goody, but he has a perfect blend of intricate plot that resolves with no threads left dangling, exceedingly memorable characters and a humanitarianism that inspires. He wrote about 14 full novels, which means I’m on my third pass through with some. It’s always an exciting moment trying to decide which one this Fall and yesterday I settled on Bleak House.

And so I snuggled down under the blankets, eager to begin the adventure and got as far as…paragraph three. What stopped me? Paragraph two. It begins:

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadow; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex Marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.…"

And so it continues, naming all the nooks and crannies where the fog had rolled. In another mood, I might have found it cozy and charming. But I have just spent five days more or less trapped indoors and outside my San Francisco window? Fog. Fog out the back door, fog out the front door. Fog following me to the corner store, fog wrapping its cold arms around me on my little walk to Haight Street. Desparate for a taste of outdoor air, I go out to the back deck to eat lunch in the…fog. I take a short drive to check in on my Mom, with headlights on piercing the…fog. I curse Tony Bennet, pretending that when “the morning fog chills the air, he doesn’t care.” From the hills of Berkeley, fog in San Francisco is beautiful, alluring, charming. Straight in the heart of the beast in the Inner Sunset, it is…. well, as Dickens might have said, “bleak.”

So no Bleak House for me— at least, not now. It’s not what I need. Maybe I’ll read James Michener’s Hawaii instead. Better location.

But speaking of which, that book probably deals with colonialism and trapped in Fogtown, I came up with a new Theory of the British Empire. For years, I’ve struggled to understand how a culture could develop such a ravenous appetite for colonization, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, not in just one place, but all throughout the world. And now it’s clear to me. They simply went mad from too many days in a row in foggy London. They just had to get out of town. And when they arrived in a place like India or Africa and saw folks hanging out in the heat, eating better food and having way more fun singing, playing and dancing than the kids trapped in British boarding schools, they went yet crazier. “Hey, no fog here! Score! But too much trouble to look for a hotel. I got the British flag. All I have do is put it in the ground and —Ha ha! Now we own it!! Hey natives, put on some more clothes and serve me some tea!! And I know you have sugar here!”

I think it was probably as simple as that. Fog—the real story behind hundreds of years of The British Empire. Though Dickens and Sherlock Holmes to the contrary, some sources say that London never really had genuine fog like San Francisco. It was just the smoke and soot and such from the Industrial Revolution. In fact, Dickens writes in the first paragraph:

"Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun."

“Mourning the death of the sun.” That has been the story of my recovery at home. The sun appeared for one brief moment today and what a glorious two minutes that was! Let’s face it—weather matters.
It breeds a national temperament, can drive us to drink or suicidal thoughts or depression or writing dark Russian novels. It can make a ball game the perfect cap to a warm summer night or have us freezing in the bleachers pretending enthusiasm while trying to endure it. (I’m going to a Giants game tonight and am prepared for the latter.) It can…

Hey! I see the sun out the window! Bye!!!!!!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

First Day of School

It’s the first day of school. For just about the first time in 38 years, I’m not singing with the other teachers to greet the students and welcome them to another year. Feels weird, like missing the opening notes of a concert or the beginning of the movie. But when I told a friend I was going in for minor surgery, he replied that no surgery is minor. And he was right. I’m doing okay, but not ready to hug a couple of hundred exuberant kids.

And so whatever good wishes I have to send will be from the comfort and safety of my desk. What what I wish?

Well, my recipe for a good piece of music, a good class, a good day, a good life is simple—an enticing beginning, a connected middle, a satisfying end. So teachers throughout the land, I certainly hope you’ve taken time to think about how to make the first day attractive and enticing and welcoming and inviting for your students. Give them a warm smile, a handshake or hug and help them feel that you’re happy to see them. Be happy to see them! Even if part of you is remembering with longing those long summer days at the beach, now you’re going to feel useful again and needed and admired. Yes, sometimes too needed by those fingers poking you, sometimes admired beyond what you deserve by your adoring students, sometimes not admired enough  when one of the little darlings makes you feel like you’re interrupting their important conversation when you start to teach. But hey, you’re a teacher and if you don’t love every nook and cranny of your students, get out while you can.

They show up with the whole of their quirky, surprising, full of wonder selves and your job as a teacher is to do the work to make your classes worthy of them. Plan things so there’s room for discovery and mystery and magic. Help the kids see the connections and patterns that make life thrilling and meaningful and at least partly understandable. Share your own loves and passions, get the buzz going in the room, feel the excitement of busy little fingers and hands and inquisitive minds investigating what you’ve set before them. Watch for those a-ha! moments and note them with the children and share them with the parents. Remember that “behaviour is the language of children” and work to see beyond the outrage of the moment to what the child is really asking for—and then do what you can to give it to them. Nine times out of ten, it’s more love or more attention or more understanding about what they need to understand. And don’t confuse understanding with unconditional acceptance of all shortcomings. Be clear, be firm, be strict when needed, set the bar high and leave them alone enough to figure out how they’ll reach it on their own. But not so alone that the whole weight is on their fragile little shoulders.

And kids, you are the center of our universe, but don’t get too carried away with that notion. You have big work ahead of you and you need to make the effort. There’s a whole reading code to crack, the countless ways to arrange and re-arrange numbers, the task of singing what you hear and playing what you sing and dancing what you play. How to cut with scissors and paint with paints and clean the brushes and work with clay and weave strips of paper or cloth into coherence and the thousand ways you can play with a ball. And sure, you’re curious about burning a bug with a magnifying glass, but someday you have to realize that this bug is also the center of a universe and worthy of the gift of life. You have to learn that you and Julie might have fun laughing at Johnny, but might as well figure out sooner than later what it feels like to be in Johnny’s shoes or realize that Julie might just team up with Johnny and decide to pick on you. We know you are so smart and have things to share with us adults beyond your effortless young computer skills, but that doesn’t mean that you’re in charge or don’t need to listen to other ideas. You’re a kid, after all. Lots to learn and lots of scraped knees, hurt feelings, confusing ideas ahead (and here I’m talking the rest of your life!), but mostly, I hope you get to be a kid 100%— get to play and try things out and laugh and run and twirl and put on dress-up clothes and draw and make a thousand small mistakes and learn from them to avoid the big ones.

At the end of this first day of school, I hope you already learned something new, had fun with a friend, showed off something you can do well, that you had an enticing beginning to a year and made all sorts of connections during the day and felt some degree of satisfaction when 3:00 rolled around. And as I ritually say each year at the Teacher Gathering after the kids have left:

“1 down. 174 to go!”

Monday, September 3, 2012

What's Your Status?

As mentioned, I dipped my toe in the rapids of Social Media and now am clinging onto a branch drenched in the roaring waters! The force of this current is simply extraordinary! And maybe that image is too negative— it has also been a bit of letting go holding on to the sides of the big rubber raft and shouting “Wheeee!!” Still no big surprises from the forgotten corners of my life—yet— but just fascinating to see who knows who and how many are happy to accept me as a friend— or vice-versa— just because I know someone else that they know and like.

And the instant feedback is impressive. Many people have told me that some feature of my blog is not working well and they’ve wanted to comment, but been blocked. But in general the blog comments are a trickle and as I’ve said often, that’s fine— too much would be too much. But all you have to do is write a simple couple of sentences on Facebook and 12 people let you know they like your “status.”

And that’s today’s theme. Who decided to use that word to describe your news of the moment? At the risk of re-opening my surgical cut, I hefted out the Oxford English Dictionary of Etymology (yes, I know there’s an online version— my books were just looking lonely) and looked up this word.

As suspected, it has to do with your height, your standing, where you are in the pecking order of a particular field, with what responsibilities and accomplishments and level of esteem held from others. Most definitions also include your legal standing. One talked about whether you were seated “above the salt” or “below the salt” at a dinner party.

In most of human history, from the village chief to the state official to the religious priest to the hot guy on the dance floor to the elder at a council, status is the first thing we want to know and most of it is (except for the hot dancer) is predetermined by birth, class, rank, wealth and such. And this goes far beyond elite debutante balls in upper crust New York society or the English hierarchy. It’s as true in the undiscovered Stone Age tribe as it is in the endless layers of Western civilization. The Javanese language has three different levels, with different root bases, that all must learn and apply specifically according to who you’re conversing with. A younger person talking to an older must use High Javanese and the elder would use low Javanese. Not too different from the tu and Usted of Spanish or Du or Sie of German.

American culture, with its shift on emphasis from “where you came from” to  “where you’re going” was the first move to status as something you earned rather than inherited. And then the hippies of my generation, with our open disdain of all status-related etiquette, dealt it another blow. (Though even there, I remember some people thinking that the guys with the longest hair were the coolest, until they were reminded, “It’s not what on your head, it’s what’s in it.”)

So I was fascinated that someone on Facebook decided that your news is called your “status.” In the great movement towards equal valuation, your status is what’s going on for you at the moment (perhaps as in your “status quo”), your state of being. When someone compliments you on your status, it’s not what you’re wearing or what you just deposited in the bank, but what interesting thing you did or thought.

And here we enter the typical music class I teach to children or adults. Within one minute, it becomes clear that your status is determined by one thing only—how well you play. Not how technically well or whether you measure up on some predetermined imaginative yardstick, but how much you’re willing to let go of any previously conferred status, earned or inherited, and simply be wholly in the moment with your partner.

But let’s face it, we remain creatures of status and will always be interested in measuring, comparing, hanging out with those near the top, scrambling to get there ourselves. No amount of social engineering is going to change that. What we need is the conversation between one form of status and another. We love to rub shoulders with the stars, we love the feeling when people notice us, defer to us, look up to us and it’s a fine game. But it is a game after all and at the end of the day, the most meaningful status is our status quo— who we are here, now, alive and alert to the moment, engaged and loving to whoever stands near us. Including the hundreds of distant Facebook users reading about our day.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Surrender, Dorothy!!

I did it. The Wicked Witch of Hyperfriendship has been writing her message across the electronic sky and I have finally succumbed. Anyone who read my previous blogs about the pros and cons of joining Facebook will note that this has long been in the works. If I’m to keep offering workshops, performances, writings, I simply have to take at least some of it to where the crowd is hanging out. And ain’t no doubt that Facebook and such is where it’s at. So I aimed to get on during my recovery from hernia surgery, a clever strategy to feel some instant TLC from just about everyone I’ve ever known and keep me entertained during the long, slow days of healing.

Once again, I am astounded by this network, the rapidity of response, the number of people worldwide connected electronically. 12 hours after signing up, some 400 friends showed up at my electronic doorstep.  Of course, it’s a delight to just see the names of so many that I’ve crossed paths with and following the Six Degrees of Separation, I’m getting hooked up with some intriguing and dynamic artists whom I’ve never met. It’s quite a party and overwhelming at first, trying to circulate with drinks in hand to touch base with each. After the initial thrill, I imagine it will settle down to the human proportion it has always been. But meanwhile, the opportunities for networking with like-minded folks is extraordinary. So why am I complaining about Wicked Witches and Hyperfriendship?

Well, I’ve been through it all before. The line between connection and distraction is a thin one in our mediated world, distinctions between breadth and depth of connection are worth making and really, nothing was broken that needed fixing. I like the way I connect with the people I do connect with— playing music, laughing, biking, going to the movies, etc. and though I’m sometimes disappointed by small audience turnout at the few concerts I give, my workshops are full and I’m thrilled that some 60 plus people seem to be checking in on this blog. It’s enough.

But the right tool for the right job and being able to post photos and videos instead of send them painfully slowly over e-mail is a perk. The energy of folks gathering in the electronic meeting room will be fun when I need it and if I don’t, why, I guess I just won’t log on. And it would be really fun to hear from some old childhood friends or distant girlfriends from another lifetime. Or not.

We’ll see how it plays out. Meanwhile, the blog will blog on, I still know how to dial a phone, e-mail will still work for both business and contact and I’ll still enjoy walking side-by-side with friends— that is, when I can walk again! Time for another pain pill.