Monday, December 31, 2012

The Wheel of Fortune

“Oh Fortuna!” proclaims the opening notes of Carl Orff’s signature work, Carmina Burana. Orff was fascinated by the Medieval Wheel of Fortune as the metaphor for what life hands us, the ups and downs of Fate spinning just out of control. When things seem unbearable, just wait— the wheel will soon be on its upturning swing. When everything is going your way, don’t gloat— the next turn down will come. An image too pessimistic for some and not accounting for our own efforts to spin the wheel. After all, the choices we make daily do indeed affect our so-called luck. As one movie star quipped, “I’m a lucky man. And the harder I worked, the luckier I got.” Perhaps we might also say it’s the way we respond to the turns of the wheel that counts most.

And so on this last day of 2012, as I continue to live life forwards excited about 2013 and occasionally am graced with presence in the present, it’s the moment for the backwards glance over the year to note the highs and lows of the spinning wheel, to give thanks as is due and returned refreshed to keep working the threads in the year to come.

For this tiny dot in a sea of 7 billion, it has been an extraordinary year. Through my own efforts to keep my vision steady and aim yet higher, to do the necessary work joined with the “little help by my friends,” good luck and good timing, it has been a year filled with excitement, accomplishment and blessing. The specifics that are fascinating to me are likely to be boring if not downright annoying to others, but still, it feels important to say some of them out loud. And indeed, for any reader of this blog, I’ve been doing just that the whole year— in 244 postings, to be exact.

This blog and your readership is high on the list of 2012’s happy occurrences. It has been easy to claim myself as a teacher, but a long, evolving process to call myself a writer and the combination of my own obsession to capture experience in words and positive response from readers has given me permission to say in public, “I am a writer.” And so, I published a new book this past year (All Blues), reprinted an old one (Intery Mintery) and conceived the next one (the education postings gathered from these blogs).

I’ll count 2012 as the year I got the nerve to say in public “I’m a jazz musician.” The formation of my Pentatonics jazz group and more performances in one year than I’ve had in the past ten is a long-deferred dream coming true. No words can express my excitement here—if I had a piano, I’d play it for you instead. The chance to continue to play for my 91-year old mother twice a week continues to be one of the greatest blessings I have known.

On the teacher side, a fine year with the kids at the SF School from January through June and then the “traveling music teacher” of the Blog’s title alive and well. Still happy to take my shoes off at Airport Security knowing what’s at the other end. As chronicled here, courses abroad in Finland, Estonia, Turkey, China, Japan, Brazil, Canada (Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Nova Scotia) and throughout the U.S. in New York, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, St. Louis and Fresno.

2012 has been the year of granddaughter Zadie—that alone will make it forever memorable! Then nephew Ian’s marriage, daughter Kerala’s scary accident and help from angels, daughter Talia’s last year in Argentina and her turn homeward to S.F. It marked the reunion of the 1973 Jug Band in North Carolina, singing with my students from back then 40 years later. After 13 years of imagining it, my Ghana xylophone teacher SK Kakraba Lobi made it to San Francisco to play at my school and give a workshop to adults as well.

It was our first summer Orff course in the Carmel Valley— extraordinary!— and our fourth performance with colleagues Sofia, James and SF School kids in the World Music Festival. It was the year of farewell to our companion of 18 years, Chester the cat, the year of farewell to the elementary school building where so much of my life was lived and the year of beginning construction of the new SFS theater/gym. It was a year of heart-wrenching goodbyes to friends Luz Martin and Sue Walton. It was a year that brought me to two new countries—Nicaragua and Peru (almost at my goal to match the number of countries visited with my age!)—and the time I walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was the year of no mustache and a trimmer body. In short, it personally has been a varied, surprising, affirming and happy year lived mostly at the high end of the Wheel of Fortune. How could I not be thankful?

In the wider culture, there were the usual spins— poignant losses with Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar’s passing, points lower then is proper for even human tragedy—Sandy Hook and the NRA’s shameful response— and for this SF citizen, high points with the Giants’ World Series win and Obama’s decisive victory. Money and power still seem to make the world go around, often trumping culture, justice and beauty. But hopeful signs abound everywhere. Here in Cuzco, Peru, there are separate trash containers for organic, recycle and landfill, Finland holds steady with inspired education, music education is alive and well in Nova Scotia and if you know who to talk to and which news source to trust, good people everywhere are doing good things, each from their tiny corner of expertise.

In short, 2012 has been the usual blend of the height of human promise and the depths of human depravity, the quirks of Fate and the focused intentions of Work, the Wheel that spins on its own and the one that we control as we spin the threads of our own fate and fortune. Given a choice, I lean towards hope and love and justice and beauty, renewed each day in the eyes of the children I teach and the teachers dedicated to giving them the world they’re worthy of. May each of us continue to weave separately and together the fabric of our glorious future. On to 2013!!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

(Note to reader: Four days away from the computer, I jotted notes in a little notebook to chronicle the epic hike to Machu Picchu. Now in Cuzco, I've put it all together in one long Blog entry. Tried to include photos as well, but they take too long to upload. Perhaps in a separate posting. Enjoy!)

Day 1: Getting Started

 “Tomorrow I take this old bag of bones on the Inca Trail for four days to Machu Picchu. Wish me luck!” I wrote on my Facebook status and to my surprise, people did. 23, to be exact, many giving me advice about how to survive the strenuous hike. I had actually written it a bit tongue-in-cheek, but now I was starting to feel a little nervous at 5:20 in the morning as I boarded the bus with 16 other travelers. We had first come together at an orientation meeting the night before, where we met Hilbert and Elvis, our two guides and went through the numerous details of what the trip entailed—what to pack, what to expect and so on.

The way the mind works, it starts to worry beforehand about all that might go wrong. And in this case, a lot! Consider. I’m 61 years old and am generally in decent shape and good health. But I did have a hernia surgery just four months earlier, have had chronic back issues, occasional minor knee problems, a severe sprained ankle a long time ago that bothered me for three years. I’ve been going through major dental re-working, including a temporary front tooth that I just hope will hold up. I’m about to go up and down a rigorous trail with 6,000 feet in elevation change (little did I know how much up and down and just how rigorous) for some 26 miles far away from any ambulance or helicopter. When I finally got the courage to ask what happened if someone fell and broke a bone or any number of possible accidents, the answer was “a porter will take you out on piggyback.” I signed no insurance waiver and there was no discussion about back-up emergency plans. The Risk Committee at my school would be having heart failure by now and though I’m advocating for less fear and more lilies-of-the-field trusting, it did make me pause for a moment.

Then there’s the weather. It’s the rainy season and it could just very well rain the entire time, as it apparently did the trip before. It could also be quite cold at night or blazing hot during the day. Who knows? It’s weather, after all.

Finally, there’s the group. It’s a huge risk to sign on with 13 strangers (besides my wife Karen, daughter Talia and her friend Zoe) and hope that they’ll be good people to be with. One obnoxious person or abrasive personality can bring the whole thing down. The guides themselves are key players and we were off to a weird start with Hilbert, whose sentences ran something like this: “Okay, guys, I’m Hilbert, guys and I’ll be your guide, guys. Guys, we’re going to meet tomorrow, guys, just here, guys, at 5:30 am guys, and bring your passport, guys and we’ll give out the poles, guys…” Really hard to capture in print and even harder to listen to for too long.

So though this was a well-organized trip far from the old explorer spirit of just taking off in the unknown of the wilderness, one with porters carrying up to nine kilos of your clothes, necessities, sleeping bag and insulate pad while you carried your day pack, with high-quality truly rainproof tents, with cooked meals (little did we know how incredible that was to turn out to be), experienced guides who had done the trip many, many times, it still promised to be an adventure with more than its share of risky and exciting unknowns. No guarantees that our bodies would be up for the challenge, the weather would cooperate, the people would be pleasant. In short, real life.

So after my growing anxiety to just get the thing going, there we finally were, ready to go. We got our passports and permits checked, crossed the bridge to the trailhead, posed for the “before” group photo and off we went. Within a mile, the sun came out and we start peeling. And so we walked for six hours with a break for a most delicious cooked lunch with soup, trout, vegetables and more delights that were to become a daily six-course feast. The ups and downs were gradual, the weather lovely and everyone in good spirits as our anxieties were soothed. The prevailing sentiment was, “This is going to be easy and fun!”

Little did we know.

Day 2: Stairway to Hell

The trouble began in the middle of the night. 12:30 am to be exact. I went out of my tent to pee and when I crawled back in my sleeping bag, noticed my stomach was upset. Some kind of acid indigestion, that vague discomfort and mild pain that just sits there, not exiting either above or below. It bothered me enough that I couldn’t get back to sleep and once I had trouble sleeping, I grew anxious that I wasn’t sleeping. The curse of the insomniac, something I’ve never had and it was hell. Today was the “challenge hike,” nine to twelve hours of hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass at almost 14,000 feet and I would need some sleep.

I lay there awake for some three and a half hours and finally fell asleep for a half hour before being awakened officially at 5 am. The porters left hot water in a bucket for washing and a cup of coca tea. I took one sip of tea, felt a chill and a shudder and rushed to the camp bathroom, a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Came to breakfast and nibbled at a banana and part of a pancake, my appetite gone. Not an auspicious beginning.

Off we went in the rain and began ascending the stone steps. It didn’t take long for Karen and I to find ourselves at the end. Most people were in their twenties and thirties, one group of three in their forties and then us. I’m usually a front-of-the-line kind of guy, but I was fine accepting that the end of the line was to be my new place on this trip. Hilbert, our guide, had a cute expression: “Hold your llamas,” reminding us to go at our own pace and not to worry. And so I did. And it was fine except that when I arrived at the place where the group had been resting for 20 minutes, I got three minutes of rest before everyone was ready to go off again. A bit of a flaw in the “Hold your llama” practice.

By the time we got to a snack stop, with the rain continuing, I was exhausted. My stomach still hurt, I was suffering from my short four-hour sleep and I had eaten very little and didn’t have the appetite for much more. I got an electrolyte chewable from my marathon-running daughter and when I had rested for a too-short five minutes, off we went again for the final ascent to the pass.

It was here that I began composing the sequel to Led Zeppelin’s old hit with my new version: Stairway to Hell. From Jacob’s ladder to the Hindu chakras on the spine, spiritual achievement is associated with ascent. Up to the spiritual world away from the mud and blood and sweat and tears and swamp of the earth to the purer air up high and climbing those stairs or ladder means you are making an effort, going against gravity to rise above your baser self. You feel that climbing a mountain and getting a larger overview than is possible when you’re down in the thick of things. And so some cultures envision heaven above and that’s where the stairs go. But my heaven was down at the base of the stairs, my hell getting to the top.

I mean, here I was, the tireless advocate of first-hand experience, of effort, of pushing beyond your comfort level, noticing the conversation going on in my head. I was ready to nominate myself for the President of the Armchair Travel Association. I was eager to be the first in line at the Machu Picchu I-Max Movie Experience. I was thinking of the Little Engine That Could chugging along chanting “I think I can, I think I can” but the louder shout of “No puedo mas!!” was ringing in my ears. Step by weary step, I pulled myself up with my two hiking poles and felt like the folks in their walkers who I visit at the Old Age Home. Except at my pace, they would have been speeding by me in their Ferrari walkers. Besides the lack of sleep and bad stomach and 61 years laughing at me “Hah! You thought it was enough just to feel young!” there was the question of the air as we approached 14,000 feet. Not much of it for these sea level lungs to breathe. And every time I came around a bend thinking the the top would be in site or there would be a stretch of level ground, there they were, 200 more steep, stone stairs.

Nothing helped. I started praying to every god I knew— Pachamama, Buddha, Krishna, Yahweh, Allah, Thor, Zeus, Kuanyin, Shango. I wasn’t particular. The phones were ringing, but no one was answering. I briefly followed a llama who had a good sense of zig-zagging around the stairs and resting every twenty yards, but lost him when I stopped to re-tie my boots. Porters were whizzing by in sandals with 25 pounds on their back, the 14-year old on our trip was two miles ahead, the top seemed to keep receding every time I looked at it. The biggest encouragement I got was from three yellow daisies on the side of the trail and later, a little bloom of lupine.

I started counting the steps, a little mediation exercise I sometimes do and got to 500 at least twice before stopping that little ploy. (I later found out that there were some 4,500 steps! Probably best that I didn’t know ahead of time.) I tried to write a song in my head “One step at a time.” Never had that clichĂ© rung so true. But who can create something when every ounce of your energy is talking to your feet, “Move!”

In the thick of your doubt, you lose faith. But math is inevitable, the steps added up and there I was at the summit. It looked like there would be no need to re-name it—Dead Woman—plus one man—‘s Pass. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.

But my exhiliration was short-lived. For now, we had to descend for the next few miles, something easier on the lungs, but harder on the legs. And once more I found myself whining like a kid in the back seat of a car “When are we gonna get there?!!!” Only no one was around to hear it, because most of them were there. The lunch spot that is. Hungry. And waiting for me.

I finally joined them and found my appetite was still wanting. And then our guide announced, “Okay, guys, we just have to go up over this other pass and then down for another three hours.” I was plotting how to fake a broken leg to see if a porter would carry me. But I trudged on, weary step by weary step and finally reached a quite lovely campsite. Spirits reviving, I went to the popcorn and hot chocolate happy hour followed by another remarkable dinner (though my appetite still tenuous) and crawled into the tent hoping for a good night sleep and a happier day three.

And indeed, it came to pass.

Day 3: Peeling Back the Layers

I slept the whole night through, my stomach felt better and the rain had slowed to heavy mist. Things were looking up. After breakfast, we had a formal introduction to the porters. Most are farmers with families who do portering opposite the planting season. It seemed odd to have waited until day three to introduce them, but better late than never and very sweet as each one stepped forth and told us his name and where he was from and then we did the same. And remember me wondering about our group back on Day One? They turned out to be all lovely people with good values, appreciative of the porters and the cooks and our guides and each other.

We found out a little history of the unionization of the porters some seven years ago, some strict limits on what they’re expected to carry, better working conditions and such. One of us, the Little Miss Sunshine member of our group, was determined to break down the barriers and invite the porters in for Happy Hour to “party with us.” They seemed alternately confused and amused by it. I happened to be reading the book The Help on this trip and the whole question about where the lines are between cultures and service and what they mean came up in this little encounter. We Americans feel uncomfortable with the service arrangement and want everyone to be our friends, but that’s a weird notion in cultures that are accustomed to it. And in my experience, that’s most of South America, Asia and a lot of Europe as well. But I’ll save that for another blog— I have a day of hiking ahead of me.

With a good night’s sleep and breakfast behind me, I hit my hiking stride and move to the middle of the group, not from any macho need to prove myself, but just in response to my natural pace. I feel strong, I feel happy, I start to notice all the things closed to me when I was in survival mode. The waterfall racing on both sides of the lupine. The bromeliads attached to the trees. Wildlife is still sparse and bird song as well, but sometimes the flowers and plants look as familiar as a hike in the Bay Area.

I haven’t showered, shaved or looked in a mirror in almost three days. I haven't stepped on a bathroom scale, not measured myself next to the better-looking guy in the magazine or hotter piano player on the CD. My sense of self is that bag of flesh and bones inside a thin blue poncho, feet planted firmly on the solid earth, breath rising and falling, mind clearing like the sun breaking through the wisps of mountain fog. I can feel all the layers of self peeling back, the thick walls of ego softening, the heavy clothing of civilization, politeness and good citizenship shedding, the multitude of selves needed to negotiate the modern world falling away to reveal the core at the center of it all, that breathing entity inside the blue poncho.

When we stop to rest at an overlook with some resident llamas, the clouds clear and good humor and convivial conversation bubbles up. The stories of who we are and where we’re from and what we do replaced by the playful banter of people at ease. Yesterday’s ordeal seems like a distant story, the world is re-born and all of us with it.

It feels good. Like Huck Finn, makes me feel that I’ve been too damn civilized for my own good. A man’s got to get out of town and live and breathe the rhythms of this natural earth, even if only for four days. And a woman too. And sometimes they can all do it together.

On to Day 4.

Day 4: Singin’ in the Rain

 We awoke to the morning birds and the distant song of the quena flute. Stepped out from our tents into the welcoming warm air of the high jungle and savored our last breakfast together of pancakes, quinoa porridge, coca tea or coffee. It was the long-awaited day— we were going to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu City.

By now, day packs expertly packed, ponchos ready for the morning mist, a song in our hearts and a lightness in our steps, we began the gentle descent. Hearts humming, spirits thrumming, the sound of our worn boots on the path while condors flew overhead. An hour of silent walking, each wrapped in their own private thoughts, the steep mountains wrapped in swirling fog peeking in through the trees. And then around the corner and a collective intake of breath. Like an explorer discovering Shangri-la in the Himalayas, Moses seeing the Promised Land, a lost ship sighting land, we stopped in our tracks. No postcard had adequately prepared us for what lay before our astonished eyes as we arrived at the Sun Gate.

There below us, the last wisps of morning mist circling the temples as the sun broke through the distant fog, a double rainbow framing the whole scene, was Machu Picchu in all its splendor. I don’t know what music sounded in my companions’ minds, but I’m sure it included trumpets, swelling strings and angelic harps. It was still early enough that the tourists had not yet arrived and we descended to the stone buildings half a millinium old and wandered around the ruins like lovers in a trance. The sun warmed our bones as our guide expertly explained some of the details of the ceremonial sites, evoking a peaceful and harmonious civilization in tune with Pachamama, our Mother Earth. Standing there in the silence of that mystical, magical place,you could feel it down to your bones, The surrounding steep mountains cradled the site, the big sky above and flowing river far below, the llamas wandering peacefully amongst the green-grassed plazas. We stood in a circle in one of the plazas, held hands and sang a simple, ancient Quechua song our guide taught us and felt like we, too, were now part of the community of Ancestors who followed the Inca path of Love and Work. It was the moment of a lifetime.

So was my fantasy of how it would be. But nothing in the above story was true except the pancakes, coffee and coca tea. Here’s the real story of what happened.

We were awakened at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m. by the shouts of the porters. It had rained relentlessly all night and no relief as we stepped bleary-eyed out of our tents in the dark. We dragged ourselves to breakfast, dressed in the same wet and dirty clothes and assembled on the path in the rain with our flashlights. Down the steep, slippery stones we went, hiking in the dark, trying to get into our hiking rhythm when we stopped. We had walked for exactly five minutes before we stopped at a building for our last passport-control check. Backs pressed to the wall, the unsavory smell of the nearby bathroom, we sank down to sit on the concrete floor as our guide proclaimed, “One hour, guys!” Apparently, the early awakening was simply to beat the rush and be the first in line.
By the time we started walking again, the day had grown lighter, but the rain had not let up. Everyone was doing their own personal prayers for it to stop, but apparently to no avail. When we arrived at the famous Sun Gate where the postcard picture is taken, we were treated to the sight of…rain and fog. Couldn’t see a thing as our guide pointed down and said, “It’s down there somewhere.” We descended to the next viewpoint where fragments of building could be seen and all the hikers were converging like lemmings swarming to the sea. Down to the next level and one short moment of “There it is!”, the sight long awaited already filled with colorful ponchos of the tourists arriving by early morning buses.

“Okay, guys, follow me!” and down we go outside the gates by the souvenir stores and we’re in Disneyland on a rainy day. Packed with tourists, people smoking, a bathroom that you had to pay money to use (Money? What’s that?). Then stand in line to re-enter the site and get our passports stamped and re-gather to begin the official tour. Our guide, bless his lovable heart, a good person, but someone who could stand a little teacher-training, started off for the 25th time, “Okay, guys. In 1911 when Mr. Hiram Bingham first discovered Machu Picchu City, it was overgrown in the jungle. There were two families living here and farming. So when Mr. Hiram Bingham in 1811 (he kept confusing these dates) came here to Machu Picchu City, it didn’t yet look like this.” And on he went while we stood in our torn ponchos with the rain picking up and slight shivering from the cold and no body heat from hiking. “Any questions, guys?!” and you didn’t have to be a psychic to know that every one was thinking, “If any one asks a question, I will personally strangle them with my bare hands.”

On we trudged with the growing mob of fellow tourists, walking to the next set of buildings and stopped while our guide continued, “So, guys, when Mr. Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu City in 1911…” A more ragged, discouraged group of poncho-clad shivering people than us would be hard to find. I actually had made peace with life in the rain and was trying to picture Gene Kelly singing in the rain amidst the ancient buildings, undaunted by the weather. It worked for a minute and then became annoying to have this soundtrack from an American musical playing in my head in the land of the ancient Incas.

At the end of the formal tour we were free to explore on our own. Some of us took refuge under the thatched roof of one of the reconstructed buildings and miraculously, the rain started to let up. We walked back up to some of the higher viewpoints and snapped pictures like mad. And before we left a couple of hours later, the sun did break through. For about six seconds, I believe.

Despite everything, some of the magic indeed had seeped in our spirits like the morning rain. It is a place worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and I’m grateful beyond measure that I was privileged to be there.

But still, I wouldn’t have minded Scenario One.

Epilogue: Bliss-Bestowing Hands

It was an old familiar feeling. Coming down from the mountains, dirty-clothed and beard-grizzled, into the hustle and bustle of the town. Time away, spent with a small group of people on the top of the world, and then down into the marketplace. In the Zen tradition, the seeker goes on retreat up in the clouds and comes back to the workaday world with “bliss-bestowing hands.”

And so we 17 bedraggled hearty hikers got on the bus at Machu Picchu and began our descent. First step was Agua Calientes, a roaring brown river churning it’s way through the town like chocolate at a furious boil and people, people, people, stores, stores, stores, the buying and selling and coaxing and begging and enticing, the first TV’s in four days blinking their rapid images to trick our ancient hunter’s brains into paying attention, the music blaring, the sexy curves that had been hidden under rainpants and ponchos out on display. Quite a contrast to the serene peaks and undulating hills and unpeopled Inca ruins who speak in whispers, “Pay attention if you like, but if not, we’ll go on manifesting our nature as we have for hundred or thousands of years.”

Despite my college fantasies that I would live in the country, I’ve been an urban guy for most of my adult life. So all of this was familiar and in a short time, walking on the roof of the world seemed like a distant dream. We had our farewell lunch, attempted to say some formal goodbyes to our guides in a challenging situation with other trekkers in the same restaurant, walked to the train station past the Christmas tree in the plaza made from green plastic soda bottles. We were back in civilization, such as it is.

Four of the seventeen were staying in Agua Calientes, three were wandering the market and the remaining ten sat in a circle outside the train station on our rice sacks filled with dirty clothes. My wife and I were the oldest times two, but still we enjoyed the group of young folks that had clearly bonded deeper by their arduous and thrilling four days together. Our train was delayed by two hours and we were in that traveler’s “wherever you go, there you are” mode, so it was just fine to hang out longer. We finally boarded the train, continued the conversations to the last stop at Ollantaytambo, switched over to the bus. By now, it was 8:30 and we had been awake since 3:30 that morning. Conversation went from a boil to a simmer to still water as we dozed off. Me, too, but when I woke up an hour and a half later, we still had not arrived in Cuzco.

The bus seems to be going about 25 miles an hour, with speed bumps every few hundred yards on the road. Finally, the lights of Cuzco appeared below and at one point, my wife spotted a circle of blue light at the base of the White Christ statue we had climbed to five days earlier. “I’ve never been happier to see Jesus,” I told her, knowing we were almost there. At 11 at night, we disembarked, made a small circle on the sidewalk with a hands-in-the-center “Here’s to Hiram Bingham in 1911!” and hugged each other farewell and then broke off to our various hostals. My group walked past the bustling Plaza de Armas with rice sacks of dirty laundry on our back like Santa Claus (the Western Zen monk come down bestowing gifts), anxious to get to the hotel and our first shower in four days. I even passed the Samba band out in the Plaza without taking one step in their direction, passed the Cuban salsa band, through the electric night streets of this now familiar city with one goal firmly in mind—shower and shave!

And here was a surprising moment. I had no desire whatsoever to check my e-mail. I had disconnected from that world and found it supremely refreshing. I imagined the world had gone on just fine without me and I knew down to my newly-muscled revived body and spirit that I had touched an old familiar self that is worthy to remember and habitually visit. I know I’ll be pulled into it all again tomorrow and it will be okay, but hereby make this public vow to periodically withdraw, be it a Zen retreat, a backpack trip or just the decision to unplug and read and play piano for four days. Sometimes you just need to get your hands off of the e-mail keyboard to feel bliss on your fingertips again.

Gratitude to my wife and daughter for pulling me out of work mode onto the trail, to the guides, porters and fellow hikers, to the maker of my boots and the inventor of plastic (at least in the rainy season), to the genius and beauty of the ancient Inca civilization (we’ll skip the brutality and terror for now).  And of course, to “Hiram Bingham, who in 1911, discovered Machu Picchu City and…”

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas in Cuzco

Bam bam! Pow! Kaboom! Christmas in Cuzco began with a bang. At midnight, to be exact, with exploding fireworks that sounded like they were just outside our Hostal door. I was lying there thinking, “Shh. You’ll wake the baby Jesus. And me!” The next morning, my daughter Talia told me that she went out to watch the fireworks. I thought they were just firecrackers. Darn! That would have been a better plan.

But you miss something one place and stumble upon something else another place. A procession of two groups of masked and costumed dancers, to be exact, as we approached the Plaza de Armas. My heart beat three times as fast as I ran with camera open trying to catch up and I did. This was my passion when I first began traveling back in 1978, to find, experience, document the colorful festivals of the world, that mixture of stirring music and dance, costume, theater, ritual, ceremony, community celebration, affirmation of a culture’s history and character and mythology. This is the quality I tried to bring back to my own school culture, with modest success. So happy to run into it again (photos to follow)— my unexpected Christmas present.

The rest was shopping in the Mercado for snacks to bring on our trek that starts tomorrow—at 5:30 am, to be exact. And now packing for four days on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Looking forward to the rare offline experience— no Wifi up there. Instead will have to tune in like folks did in the old days— thought travel, imagination, presence. And I hear that it will be an amazing place to do that.

And so, dear reader, nothing from me for a while on the screen, but I imagine I’ll be back newly inspired to report. For now, just grateful that I spent Christmas in Cuzco instead of Christmas in Costco. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Letter to World

Dear World,

This is just to let you know that I’m taking some time off from saving you. Truth be told, I'm getting tired of my own constant harangue, my next epiphany about how the world could, should or would be if only. I’ve been chugging along in my missionary train for a long time now and never seem to run out of fuel. When people thank me for saying some things that resonate with them, I feel encouraged to continue. When people get pissed off that I'm saying some things that they don’t want to hear, I feel determined to keep saying them. Chug-chug-chug, whoooh! whoooh! goes the train, sometimes speeding so fast I can’t even enjoy the view out the window.

And in any case, I can’t help it. Re-reading my “mission statement” of my blog, that marvelous E.B. White quote (off to the right and down), it just seemed an indelible part of who I’m destined to be—the engineer of “Music Education for a Better World” train.

But here in Cuzco on Christmas Eve, my daughter Talia and friend Zoe newly arrived to join my wife and I, it’s time for a rest. We had the most lovely lunch in a simple, elegant and inexpensive restaurant (tourists! Go for the Menu del Dia always!) with a breathtaking view. From there, we ascended up the narrow cobblestones streets to the hillside with the Cristo Blanco standing arms spread giving his blessing on the city. The sun was out in the white-clouded sky, the locals out walking with their alpacas (apparently, not llamas here) and a blessed quiet everywhere. Below the city and behind the mountains and with so few cars here, one could hear the music coming from the Main Plaza, where all the vendors were hawking their wares in the Christmas Market. A moment of pure peace at the feet of the White Christ on this evening before his mythical birth, a peace not born from worship, faith or belief in a story two-thousand years old, but from the simple fact of stopping to attend here and now to the bushes blowing lightly in the breeze, the alpacas chewing their cud, the sea of red-tiled roofs below with the music wafting up, the sense that merely being alive is miracle enough.

We descended on a different route, 512 stairs (an old family tradition of estimating beforehand and counting), down into the hustle and bustle of the festive surge of humanity and the feeling of profound relief that I could once again wholly enjoy you without a single thought of how I was going to save you today. And World, if I may say so, you're beautiful.

But don’t worry. If you need my help, I’ll be back at it again tomorrow.

Your friend,


Scenes from Cuzco

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Llamas in Bethlehem

I’m always amazed when exported religions don’t change their imagery and amused when they do. Buddha was from India, but if you look at sculptures and paintings in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, surprise! —he looks Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Thai. At the same time, Christians in those same countries don’t give Jesus an Asian face. Instead, they worship a blonde blue-eyed Northern European even though the historical Jesus was a Jew from the Middle East. We all have the natural tendency to form our gods in our own image, to picture them as a neighbor we could borrow sugar from and chat about the weather. But we also have the capacity to override that, with black folks adoring a white Jesus and American Buddhists bowing to an Asian statue. Go figure.

Today walking around Cuzco I came upon a Nativity Scene in a park with a llama next to Joseph and Mary. And I just had to wonder: “How did that llama get to Bethlehem?”

Welcome to the wonderful weird world of human beings, a befuddled mix and mess of contradictions. And you can see a lot of it here in this ancient Incan city turned Spanish turned tourist turned modern. Those traditionally-dressed women out of the old National Geographic photos talking on their cell phone under the Starbucks sign. The kids huddled around the plastic Barbies, the tourists around the handmade Peruvian dolls. Me sitting in the plaza writing in my journal, then back to the hotel to get connected on Wi-fi and post this blog.

Today was a sunny Sunday high up in the Andes and not exactly a day of rest. Those traditional women with their llama on a leash dressed for show, getting tourists to take their photo for money.
The shoeshine boys insisting they could improve my black canvas Adidas. The restaurant hustlers trying to get us in to try their pizza or tacos, guinea pig or alpaca. Most stores open on Sunday, ironically, most churches closed. At least by 11am.

Walked a suggested guide-book route around the city and came to the market. Ah, such familiar territory, all those open-air or high-roofed markets I’ve known in Guatemala or Brazil or Ghana or Bali or Barcelona— well, just about everywhere I’ve traveled beyond Costcoland. Entered the market and this was no tourist attraction, but the real deal—whole slaughtered pigs laid out on slabs, bags of spices and herbs, 20 varieties of potatoes. Stopped to have a smoothie licuado and bought some small bananas and Brazil nuts. Crowded, chaotic and festive all at once.

After the market, passed an old toothless woman dragging three heavy sacks of unprocessed wool. Three steps forward, rest two minutes, three steps forward, rest two minutes. My wife and I passed by her, as did all the pedestrians, but a block later, I suggested we go back and help her. We did and though perhaps she spoke only Quechua and didn’t understand my Spanish, I’m sure she understood my gestures—and yet she refused. Why I’ll never know. Perhaps she didn’t trust me, perhaps this was her daily workout routine. Oh well.

A lunch of quinoa soup. At first surprised that they knew such a designer grain and then—duh! This is where it comes from! Only exotic to us Americans shopping at Trader Joes. Back to the lovely hostal (Amaru in case anyone is planning a trip here) for an afternoon of reading and resting. And realizing that sunblock at this altitude needs to be assiduously applied and re-applied.

As for those llamas, there was a llama farm in my college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio back in the early 1970’s. They seem to be everywhere in the U.S. these days. So who knows? Perhaps there really was one in the manger 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pacha Mama Machu Picchu

I had a wonderful time in Buenos Aires vicariously participating in my daughter Talia’s farewells after three and a half years living in Argentina. Discovered a few more parks in-between our errands, had some great meals, went to hear Afro-jazz at a club called Thelonious, enjoyed all of her many friends and more. I admire the life she created for herself immersed in another culture, but after such a long time away, I'm so happy she’s coming home to San Francisco. But not right away. First she'll travel for two more months in South America, including our upcoming trip to Machu Picchu. Ah, to be 28 again!

As much as I enjoyed Buenos Aires (my third time there), my old travel self started to really perk up as I boarded the plane to Lima, Peru. The people on the plane looked noticably different and they were. Argentina had effectively wiped out all native peoples and those of African descent, but here the indigenous population is alive and well and my blood began to stir just seeing them on the plane. And much more so when I finally arrived in Cuzco and saw the streets filled with folks dressed in their distinctive hats and woven clothes. It brought me back to the first trip I took to a notably different place—Guatemala in 1975. Much was similar here in 2012— women sitting on the street weaving on backstrap looms, narrow cobblestoned streets, bearded young Western travelers wearing loose multi-colored Peruvian pants and the sensation of a perpetual market of goods, from the clothing to the crafts to the fresh food and street vendors. Churches, plazas, brass bands in the street, a cornucopia of colorful Carnavalian festivity and energy.

How I love it! Finally I’m not the guy being driven to the Orff workshop site, planning my classes and arranging my notes, checking my e-mail, sneaking into Starbucks. I’m back in a world of difference, a world with less English and more gesture, with as much Quechua as Spanish, a world with prices to be bargained. If I’m not careful, I could get seduced into feeling that it is charming, when in fact it is often a difficult world of survival for those who are living it. It’s a world poised between two centuries, the tourists eager to buy locally made handcrafts from wood, animal fur, cloth, while the locals are buying up all the imported plastic products.

After catching up on a night of little sleep on airplanes and airports, I met my wife newly arrived from San Francisco (Talia and friend arrive tomorrow) and we walked the streets just taking it all in and adjusting to the 12,000 ft. elevation. Found a charming restaurant with the rare treat of Andean music playing instead of the omnipresent crappy American pop (which EVERY cab driver to and from the various airports played) and the even rarer treat of two brothers coming in and playing live with charango, panpipes and bombo while we sipped Pisco sours and ate quinoa soup (no guinea pig or alpaca for this traveler!). The musicians talked about Pacha Mama, a Quechuan/Aymaran goddess similar to Mother Earth and then sang a song about Machu Picchu.

That’s when my Orff teacher self kicked in again and I started writing down the chant I’ll develop with the kids when I resume teaching. Here’s the first draft. Say it out loud—fast.

 “Pacha Mama Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu Pacha Mama
  Pacha Mama Picchu Machu Machu Picchu Mama Pacha.
  Pacha Picchu Machu Mama, Picchu Pacha Mama Machu
  Pacha Mama Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu Pacha Mama!”

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Republic of NRA

I missed the NRA Press Conference, but it came as no surprise that this morally repugnant group of sub-mortals would respond to hearbreak with, “More guns!” I can hear the ka-chink of the cash registers ringing as they hope to capitalize on the suffering and grief. Which is always what such apologist rhetoric is about—“follow the money.”

I have a suggestion. Take two or three of the states in the U.S. with the highest NRA membership and let them secede from the Union and start their own country. We’ll throw a high wall around it (with heavily armed guards, of course) and enact strict immigration laws. Those entering the Republic of NRA will go through the security scanners and be pulled aside if they don’t have a gun. Those leaving will be strip-searched to make sure they don’t have a weapon. That is, after they pass the emigration test of non-violent conflict resolution. If not, it’s back to Gunville they go.

In short, we’ll leave all the NRA enthusiasts alone to create their own Gunutopia. Midwives in birth centers will have automatic weapons on the tray next to the stethoscope. Military police armed with sub-machine guns will stroll down the rows of desks at school checking on the kid’s homework. Wheel-chaired residents of old age homes will have assault rifles strapped to their chair. The ministers in the church will keep their handgun in hand as they preach about Jesus’ message of brotherly love. Oh, what a fine place it will be!

Then after they’ve all killed each other off, we’ll reclaim the land and get back to the business of creating a world of more words than weapons, more faith than fear, more helping than hating. 

World's Greatest Mystery

What do the Nasco Lines, Voynich Manuscript, Phaistos Disc, Easter Island Sculptures, Lost City of Atlantis and my recent trip from the Buenos Aires airport all have in common? One thing—they all remain unsolvable mysteries.

The story is simple. I walked out of the Buenos Aires Airport and hailed a cab. Before entering the taxi, I asked what it would cost to go to such and such address. “80 pesos” was the answer. I had remembered my daughter telling me to expect 200 pesos, but who was I to argue? So I got in and off we went. No meter running, lots of traffic, a pleasant conversation. When we arrived at the house, I gave him a 100 peso bill and asked for ten back. He gave it to me and drove off and as I was soon to discover, became the Mystery Taxista of Buenos Aires who would so severely undercharge an innocent tourist.

For after telling the story to my daughter, she proceeded to tell each of her many friends and acquaintances. Without exception, they all shook their heads, natives and ex-pats alike and said in dumbfounded amazement, “Imposible ! No puede ser!” So I have become somewhat of a legendary figure in town, the man with the 80-peso cab ride. Tomorrow I will hail another cab to the airport. If I can get another 80-peso price, I will move from a minor deity in Argentina to a full-fledged god. But everyone tells me with certain conviction— "Ain't gonna happen."

In the days that followed, many have searched for explanations: “First day as a cab driver?” “Flunked math?” “A Buddhist Bodhisattva doing his time on earth driving taxis?” But none have succeeded to unravel the mystery.

Perhaps there are just some things better left unsolved. I’m still wondering who stole the chocolate bars at the Feather Falls school camping trip in 1976 and I just have to accept that I’ll never find out. Meanwhile, the story of the legendary 80-peso cab ride will circulate around Buenos Aires for decades to come.

P.S. If anyone’s impressed by my esoteric knowledge about the Voynich Manuscript and such, I cheated by going to a Website about the World’s 10 Greatest Mysteries. Pretty interesting stuff there if you’re inclined to look further!

P.S.S. Finally added my Hitler Meets Scooby Doo photo for that posting. Worth a peek.

P.S.S.S. Happy Solstice and Happy Post-Apocalypse World.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

20/12/2012 and the End of the World

By various yardsticks, today is a special day. It’s the last day of Autumn, the day before the Winter Solstice, the time of the shortest day and then the return to the light. It’s the day before my nephew’s birthday. It’s a once-in-human history 20/12/2012— that is, if you’re in Europe or South America or most of the world that puts the day first, then the month, then the year. In the U.S., it’s 12/20/2012. Which is also pretty interesting. (And just why do we do that differently from almost any other place?) And what was the other thing? Oh yeah, it’s the day before the end of the world.

I haven’t been following the Mayan news lately, but hey, we’ve been here before. The Apocalypse was supposed to happen in the year 1,000 AD and when it didn’t, it was called “The Great Non-Event.” I haven’t read it yet, but there’s a book called The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000AD by James Reston. In a short synopsis, it says:

“The old order was crumbling, and terrifying and confusing new ideas were gaining hold in the populace.  Random and horrific violence seemed to sprout everywhere without warning, and without apparent remedy.  And, in fact, when the millennium arrived the apocalypse did take place; a world did end, and a new world arose from the ruins.”

Sound familiar? In the U.S. alone, take a look at the news:

Old order crumbling= Republican party.

Terrifying ideas= Climate change.

Confusing new ideas (for some)=Marriage based on love, not gender. Black man as two-term President of the United States. More women in Congress.

Random and horrific violence without warning= Sandy Hook.

A world did end and a new world arose from the ruins= The renewed determination from each of us to re-make the world with compassion, intelligence, kindness at the helm. In ourselves, our families, our schools, our neighborhoods, our politics, to end the tired old paradigms of greed, power and money and build something worthy of our children from the ruins.

Can we make this our private and collective vow in the New Year?

That is, if the world makes it that far. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How Can I Miss Me If I Won't Go Away?

How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away? is the title of a humorous book about relationships, but it equally applies to traveling with Wi-fi everywhere at our fingertips, instant access all the time. I love it and I hate it. Nice not to scout out the Internet CafĂ© with computers powered by hamster wheels, like the one in Greece years back that took 15 minutes to boot up while your paid clock time was running. Nice not to sit next to teenagers playing shoot ‘em up games with bad music playing. Nice to be able to send things directly from your desktop. Nice to write in the comfort and privacy of your hotel room. And except for the high-end hotels, for free.

But now that I’m on Facebook and posting my blog and checking my school e-mail and checking my own e-mail, the addiction factor is creeping in. All these promised fulfillment of those ancient human cravings: “I’m connected.” “I have friends.” “I have interesting things to say that they want to hear.” “They have interesting things to say that I want to hear.” “I’m important.” “I need to take care of this business or else fall behind.” “I need to share the story of the great meal I had last night.” And so on. It’s a powerful force that’s hard to resist.

And yet I traveled most of my life without it and that allowed me to enjoy something called —travel! The chance to really get away, take a break, miss people back home, keep connected with them in my imagination and write them a postcard under a tree. Open myself to the commotion on the street of wherever I might be or the quiet of a park or the wonder of natural beauty and leave that busy self behind, melt invisibly into the crowd and just watch and listen. How I need it! No matter how I value the life I have built and now keep together with the arsenal of hyper-communication, the most beautifully constructed identity can still be a prison if we don’t get the heck out and take a walk in the fresh air. It’s all well and good to become somebody specific, but it’s also necessary to drop it sometimes and be nobody in particular, just a wanderer partaking of each day’s gifts. Not only leave some time and space to miss the people back home, but also leave behind the person I am back home. To paraphrase that book title: "How can I miss me if I don't go away?"

These my thoughts sitting in the park Los Bosques de Palermo en Buenos Aires, in company with two white ducks bobbing in the lake, the nearby call of birds and distant hum of traffic. My daughter Talia is jogging around the lake while I sit and breathe in and out and enjoy a moment’s respite before we picnic on the grass. This the travel I remember, this the travel I need.

Now to rush home and post this blog using Wi-fi!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hitler Meets Scooby Doo

Where can you see a book about Hitler next to another about Scooby-Doo ? Eat an ice cream cone in shorts while listening to a Jewish songwriter’s hit White Christmas sung in Portuguese by Germans? See Santa Claus next to the Three Wise Men while eating chocolate pizza? Why, in Nova Petropolis, of course!!

These were just some of my highlights in my post-course night out in the south of Brazil. I had heard that Brazil was an inverted U.S.— the hotter weather and black population in the Southern U.S. (well, at least before the big migrations to Chicago and New York) while the Germans and Norwegians settled up north in colder Minnesota and Wisconsin, is reversed in Brazil— the big African influence in the tropical north and the German/ Italian immigrants in the sub-tropical south. Whereas everyone typically expects samba everywhere, not so in Southern Brazil. There are German choirs and Italian choirs and gaucho-cowboy gatherings and very few folks with African ancestry. Though the University students and young teachers I taught had that northern Brazilian in-their-bodies rhythmic sense, the town I went to to hear my host’s choir sing—Nova Petropolis—was indeed an old German town, complete with food choices, blonde hair and architecture.

It’s fascinating what image of a country gets exported to the world at large while the actual reality of local culture and demographics is so much more diverse than we can ever imagine. Brazil has been Samba-land for me since the movie Black Orpheus and bossa nova since Stan Getz topped the charts with The Girl From Ipanema. But when I went to Recife years back, I encountered new musical styles I never knew existed—Maracatu, Ciranda, Frevo, for starters. Now I’ll have to include some German-Brazilian, Italian-Brazilian and Gaucho culture in my expanded sense of Brazil.

It was an interesting evening, to say the least. I hadn’t seen many outward signs of Christmas in Caxias do Sul where I taught, but here it was with a vengeance— a big Christmas tree in the town square, a little Santa village close to the Nativity scene, multi-colored lights everywhere. I browsed through the outdoor bookstores, curious about a series featuring Hitler, Stalin, Franco and others shelved next to kids’ books— one could leaf through a book about Hitler and then check out the next book on Scooby Doo. Then the first of four choirs came to the stage and sang White Christmas and Winter Wonderland in 80 degree heat. One of the stranger lead-ups to Christmas I’ve had.

It was certainly educational. Amongst many discoveries (including chocolate pizza), I now know that there is another despot that ranks up there with Hitler, Stalin, Franco and their ilk. Of course, I’m talking about Scooby-Doo.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Teacher Heroes

I finally agree with mainstream media about one thing— those teachers in Connecticut rushing in to save children’s lives were heroes of the first order, worthy of the highest respect human beings can pay to each other. But CNN and Fox News, one question. Every day teachers are rushing in to save children’s lives. Not throwing their bodies over them to take bullets, but throwing their heart and souls into helping children learn what they need to know and to feel known as they strive to learn. Do we need to wait for extreme violence before some reporter will acknowledge these acts of heroism? Might I get on a plane someday and have the flight attendant announce, as they do with soldiers, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m told there’s a teacher aboard,” followed by appreciative applause?

The status of teachers in our culture is our national shame and it has steadily gotten worse. Teachers who used to be left alone to follow their zeal for teaching and love for their students have had to jump through the testmaker’s hoops knowing it hurts their children and kills their own passion. Merit pay has pitted teachers against each other and told them to get better for the wrong reasons. Nervous parents have laid more and more childraising at teacher’s feet and felt justified in complaining—or suing—when the mood suits them. Teacher’s pay is sometimes close to the burger flipper’s and their feeling of worth and dignity in the culture three galaxies away from the movie star in rehab or sleazy politician.

Okay, I know it makes lousy TV news to show an amazing class in an elementary school or a teacher soothing Isabel’s hurt feelings or helping Marcus open a door to a closed understanding and Fox News wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. The Teacher Hero! tagline just doesn’t play well in the media circus without the national tragedy backdrop.

But there are other ways to confer dignity, status and appreciation and why not consider them? Leave teachers alone when they’re teaching with ardor and inspiration and stop making them go through the obstacle course of all the cynical faux-assessments. Hold teachers accountable when they’ve lost their fire (or never lit it) and support them in real-deal professional development. Involve them in the key decisions that affect their classroom and their school community. Educate parents to learn to respect the demanding and important work teachers do and let administrators shield them from the crazy ones. And hey, while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to up that salary a little.

Happy teachers make happy schools and most important of all, make happy kids. There is no more damaging and heartrending act than making kids feel that adults don’t care. Every music program cut, every recess cancelled for testing, every program let go to make room for the next bureaucractic insanity, is a message to children: “We don’t care.” Kids convinced that the adults in charge are truly acting in their best interest—and are in the happy classrooms that prove it— are kids that stand a chance of making it in an incomprehensible world where murder and mayhem have entered the schools. From assault weapons to rampant testing, different ends of the same spectrum, we are falling short in the sacred covenant we owe our children to protect them, to care for them, to give them what they need and deserve. What will it take to finally turn that around? 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

July at Christmas

Got my traveling music teacher hat on again and it’s the straw kind that keeps out the sun. I left San Francisco in jeans, hiking boots and fleece vest, reluctant to forego the cozy winter Christmas scene, but now write this barefoot in shorts and hey, that’s not such a bad thing! I love the summer and instead of Christmas in July, I’m getting July at Christmas. Good deal!

Of course, such gifts don’t come for free. My price was 26 straight hours of travel, the 9 from New York to Rio de Janeiro in a middle seat. But grateful for unlimited movies and Hope Springs, Going the Distance and the Bourne Legacy helped keep me occupied. That and marking up with red pen the Kinko’s copy of my new book (or books). Maybe it’s just my long history with print, but these blogs on the printed page feel different to me than on the screen. And more than once, they came across as something I’d like to read. A good litmus test for an author.

I arrived in Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, met my contact and while waiting for my ride, had a rough hour trying to keep up convivial conversation with only a few hours of airplane sleep behind me. When my driver and her friend came, they graciously let me stretch out in the back seat while they drove the hour or so north to Caxias do Sul.

A two-hour nap in the hotel and then off to teach on Friday night. I entered the room and was astounded to see that over half of the 40 people attending were men! Very rare in the Orff world. And 90% of them were young teachers or students having their virgin Orff experience. That's an amazing moment for an Orff teacher. I told them:

“I'm going to open the door to this remarkable world and some of you will recognize the house that you’re destined to live in. Others will come in and join in the merrymaking, enjoy a beer and leave. Some may even feel they came to the wrong party. Whichever one is true for you is fine. I’ll do my best to be a gracious host and make you feel comfortable, well-fed and happy to be here.”

And off we went. Two days later, with affectionate hugs and wet eyes, we said goodbye to each other with some 20 more songs, dances and pieces to help us navigate through both the stormy seas and idyllic lakes of this precious life. We left the room carrying the echoes of the energy, laughter, love, deep quiet and exuberant exultation we generated.

After I deliver my promised notes, I have an evening and a morning to wander this town and get a feeling for where I am beyond the room of music teachers. That traveling reporter hat I’ll save to put on for tomorrow.

With sunglasses on.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


“Just heard the shocking news” opened my last blog about my friend Sue Walton, but that was nothing compared to the latest school killings. What can one say? Amidst the grief and heaviness of the horror, so many of my teacher friends on Facebook are talking about how they continue to fill their school with love, love and yet more love. And music. What else can one do but weep and keep going on with yet more love and compassion?

Amidst the tears, after the shock settles, may I suggest a next step? Bring down the f’—ing NRA’s stranglehold on gun control. Stop listening to the insanity of “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Well, yes, but people with guns kill more people more easily that someone with bare hands, a knife or a baseball bat and that child spared might have been your own. How many more school tragedies will it take before we wake up? Columbine was not an isolated event—it’s becoming a national pattern. We’ve had the statistics at our fingertips forever, comparing the actual murder rates of countries with gun control and those without. The difference is staggering.

Let us honor these innocent children and their inconsolable families by protecting our young as we should. It’s time for serious gun control, side by side with love, love and yet more love. 

Farewell to Wanda Woman

Just heard the shocking news that Sue Walton, my old partner-in-crime for ten years of Holiday plays at the SF School, passed away from complications due to a tooth abscess. I’ve heard rumors of a service sometime in February—her birthday was Valentine’s Day, so perhaps then. But meanwhile, a few words about Sue.

Sue was a large woman in all ways— body (over 6 feet tall), heart and spirit, a memorable character who stood out from the crowd. I first met her at Cazadero Music Camp in 1980. She was the drama teacher in residence, sang blues at every open mike she could and was known by various aliases, of which “Wanda Woman” was my favorite. After a few summers in Cazadero together, I invited Sue to co-direct the Winter Holiday Plays at The San Francisco School with me and so began ten marvelous years together, from 1984-1993.

What a run we had! I imagine most SF School alums will remember some of our classic collaborations—It Could always Be Worse, King Hop, The Christmas Carol, Holly and Ivy, The Day They Outlawed Music (this one was James Harding’s first school play), Lora Lorita, The Month Brothers, The Elders of Chelm and The Golden Goose, to name just a few. Sue often wrote her own songs for her scripts and that last play included her best-selling “Oh, we’re all stuck together and we can’t get loose. We’re all following the Golden Goose.” She also had a great Halloween song and a Cazadero classic “Don’t Let the Bugs Bug You.”

Sue loved to sing and could belt out the blues with the best of them. She was always to the side of the Orff world, but in 1996 came to the Memphis Orff Conference and what a treat it was to hear her grab the mike and sing on Beales Street! We had a couple of songs we liked to do together, me on piano, her on vocals— When Sunny Gets Blue and My Funny Valentine amongst them (Sue’s birthday was on Valentine’s Day.) Every year after the plays were done, Sue would join in at the last singing time of the year with the kids and cap off the group singing with a solo version of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I played the song on the piano the day after I heard the news and imagined her by my side.

Once Sue left the school, we still ran into each other here and there. She got some gig at the Lawrence Hall of Science and continued with her freelance work. Talking to the folks who first told me the news, it seems like after some 20 years, she got laid off from her Lawrence Hall gig and was piecing things together the way freelance artists often have to do in this country. Which means no benefits or health insurance. The word on the street is that she had an abscessed tooth which she didn’t take care of— perhaps with no insurance, just trying to save money— and that it kicked off a serious infection that finally reached her heart. It makes me sick to think that if she had been living in Canada, Finland or Cuba, she might still be with us today. Wake up, America.

And so Wanda Woman is now wandering amongst the stars, having left her mark on us remaining mortals. RIP, Sue Walton— you are loved and remembered.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Home for the Holidays

 I’m driving around San Francisco with the radio playing, still infatuated with this most beautiful city. On comes Bing Crosby singing “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” At 61, I’m still game for the out-the-door adventure and don’t yet feel the nesting instinct of the elders to stick close to home.

But I’m with Bing on this one. I really just want to settle into the spirit of the season. Go to the Revels, see the kids’ Holiday Plays at school and the St. George and the Dragon ritual mummer’s play the 8th grade does and sing with the kids and go ice skating with them and sing with the neighbors at our annual caroling party. I want to go the Posada party and the White Elephant exchange and eat too much and listen to the holiday CD’s and curl up on the couch with some old movies. I want to take out the Christmas decorations from my childhood, work on the family newsletter and yes, even shop and handwrite the envelopes for the Christmas cards.

Instead, I’m back at the airport, about to board a plane to Brazil. A short Orff course, then on to Buenos Aires to help my daughter Talia celebrate the end of her three and a half years as an ex-pat and help her head back home to San Francisco. But first, meet my wife in Cuzco, where thre three of us and two of Talia’s friends will celebrate Christmas. And then start climbing the Inca Trail the next day to Machu Picchu.

When I tell people my plans, they pretend to be envious, but perhaps are secretly thinking “I’m so glad it’s you and not me.”  I know I’ll enjoy it all and be glad I did it, but truth be told, I’d be quite happy just wandering around San Francisco while Bing sings to me. Instead, I guess I’ll just whistle the tune as I ascend the Inca trail.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12/ 12/ 12

     ·      12 months
·      12 Zodiac signs
·      12 clock hours
·      12 Apostles
·      12 Knights of the Round Table
·      12 Members of a Jury
·      12 Gates to the City
·      12 Tribes of Israel
·      12 Days of Christmas
·      12 Steps of AA
·      12 eggs in a carton
·      12 inches in a foot
·      12 dots on a dice
·      12 bars in a blues
·      12/8 West African polyrhythm
·      12 half-steps in an octave
·      12 x 9 =108, sacred number in Hinduism and Buddhism

And so 12/12/12/. Three one’s, three two’s. Only happens once in the entire history of the planet. 

Do something twelve-worthy today.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kids in the Zone

Read an education Website, sit in on a Board of Education meeting, take a class on teaching methods and you’ll hear all sorts of interesting words— benchmarks, anticipatory sets, portfolio assessments, zones of proximal development and more. But the most important word is often missing—kids.

If you’re a teacher or thinking about being a teacher, check in with yourself. Do I like kids? Do I enjoy being around them? Do I love them?  If the answer is no, get out fast!

If yes, then get more specific. What ages do I particularly love? And what specifically do I love about them? How can I understand more deeply how they think, what they like, what matters to them? Then build all your teaching choices around that understanding and without being fluent in education-jargon, you’ll have yourself a pretty exciting classroom.

Good teaching begins with useful insights into the nature of kids— the way they both astound us and drive us crazy, the way we can’t wait to be around them and are relieved to have a break from them, the way they give us hope for who we might have been and the way they mirror back to us the worst of who we are, the way they’re so zany and erratic, surprising and volatile, caring and cruel.

It’s not too hard to learn what kids are like. Really, all we have to do is remember. After all, we are all kids once. We were once alive with the wonder of the world, curious about its every nook and cranny. We used to run from place to place in sheer exultation from the excitement of being alive, giggle and laugh without going to the comedy club, spend hours in company with our own fantasy play. We also skinned our knees, felt small and powerless, felt inconsolable grief when our friends were mean to us or we didn’t get the part we wanted in the school play. Good teaching is the place where the kids we were, now grown into adults who remember, and the kids we teach, play together in the zone of proximal development. 

Monday, December 10, 2012


A famous archer traveled the countryside looking for another who had acneived his level of expertise. He defeated opponent after opponent and one day happened upon a barn with multiple targets. Each target had an arrow in the dead-center of the bulls-eye. Eager to meet the archer who had achieved such a feat, he knocked on the farmhouse door. Upon asking to meet the archer, a young girl came out. The archer was astonished.

The archer spoke.“Young lady, tell me the secret of your success. Never have I seen such accuracy in all my days.”

The girl replied, “It’s really quite easy. I take my bow and a quiver of arrows and I shoot each one into the barn wall. Then I go up to each arrow and  draw a target around it.”

This marvelous tale, told to me by storyteller Angela Lloyd, speaks volumes about what good education might be. The way things are, innocent young children walk into the first day of school and are handed a bow and a quiver of arrows. They’re then shown multiple targets called math, language, history, science, music, art, P.E., etc. and told to hit a bulls-eye every time. If they’re lucky, some of their teachers actually teach them good technique— how to string the bow, how to aim, how to fire, how to practice to improve. If they’re not, they have to figure it out on their own.

The maddening thing is that every target is different and requires a different way of shooting. And every teacher has different advice. Every few months, their score is totaled up and sent home. If they fail to hit 100% bulls-eyes, they’re either told they’re not trying hard enough or have no talent or have attention issues that will require drugs and therapy or any number of strategies to fix what’s broken.

In short, the child simply has to mold him or herself to the demands of the school. They may find out they’re good at the game and go through twelve relatively painless years with an Honor Roll bumper sticker on the parents’ car. Or they may discover, as did Charles Dickens, Albert Einstein, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lennon, Steve Jobs and many others, that the game doesn’t suit them and have to develop survival strategies before arriving at the work that changes the world and makes them rich and famous.

Now imagine instead that the kids entering school shoot the arrows into the barn wall of each subject and the teacher builds curricular targets around each, with the arrow in the dead center of the bulls-eye. What a difference that would make! Instead of the child having to rise to the demands of the teacher, the teacher levels down to the needs, interests, talents and procilivities of each child. School culture is built around the way children really are instead of the adult fantasy targets of how we’d like them to be.

On one level, the image speaks for itself and requires no elaboration. But because I’m a teacher myself and by necessity practical, I know that teachers will object to the impossibility of creating a personalized curriculum for each child, will question the suggestion that children shouldn’t rise to accomplish key targets, will criticize the inference that this is an either/or proposition. And they’re right. Good education will include both the child’s stretch towards the bulls-eye of each subject’s key targets and the teacher’s flexibility to keep drawing targets around the child’s particular genius.

And we should keep a particular eye out for the characters like the one in the story. She may have been a lousy archer, but she was a brilliant problem-solver. I can see her hanging out in the company of Charles, Albert, Ella, John and Steve. And just maybe if I’m nice to her in my class, she may buy me that summer home down the road when she’s rich and famous.

Or at least a set of bow and arrows.