Tuesday, December 31, 2013


It’s the turn of the year, the time to put on the Janus mask and look back at where we’ve been and ahead to where we hope to go. Behind us lie our surprising successes and inevitable disappointments, our moments of unexpected grace and life’s perpetual foot on our necks. The whole catastrophe. But glory hidden inside it all, if we know how and when and where to look. And that’s what an arbitrary calendar date can help us do. Name specifically what happened the last 365 days and what we still dream of for the next 365.

This blog has served both as a way for me to remember what happened and trumpet forth my vision of what I still hope to happen. It was birthed almost three years ago and since then, I’ve posted 696 entries, attracted 113 Followers and received 69, 210 page views. Like any writer, I’m sometimes besieged with doubt: “Why am I doing this? Do I have anything worthwhile to say? Does anyone really care to read it?” Like any writer, the answers are somewhat irrelevant. The writing comes from some inside need that defies questioning, a practice of shaping the world through language, using words as the mirrors that reflect experience and define vision and with the extra pleasure that someone somewhere might be reading it and responding. “Yes!” “Hmm.” “Is he crazy?” Doesn’t matter so much what reaction, just the pleasure of keeping a conversation going.

No question that certain themes come up again and again and sometimes to the point of boring myself or the reader with “that again?” The challenge is to keep saying the same thing over and over again but in different ways. Same as the composer using the same 12 notes or the jazz improviser working through Body and Soul for the 1,000th time. It’s a healthy practice and yes, many times, it misses the right notes or repeats the same old riff, but the glory is in the attempt.

And what precisely are these themes? Mostly praise and it’s cousin, outrage. Praising the power of art, the beauty of music, the astonishing souls of young children and equally old folks and the winning combination of all those souls meeting art. Speaking on behalf of the wondrous things that have small voices in this loud, shouting, electronically amplified world, bearing witness to the things that Fox News doesn’t cover and can’t be bought at WalMart, tuning the ear to those tender notes buried under screaming guitars, testifying to the God and gods that stay away from TV Evangelists and deluded dogmas.

I suppose my goals, such as they are, are the same as when I first wrote them in the ABOUT ME paragraph on the right— to simultaneously enjoy the world as it is and help change it to the something better it might be. I wish the same for us all as the old year turns the corner to 2014. May it be so!

Singing the World

The Australian Aborigines traditionally live in a world they call the Dreamtime. The natural world is not “an environment” or a “landscape,” but the living path of spiritual beings, the footprints of Creation. They co-participate in this timeless life by singing, dancing, painting, storytelling the tracks of the Ancestors, walking through the world following “the songlines.” We in the West have songs about mountains and lakes and wildlife, we have Beethoven evoking the natural world in his 6th Symphony or Charlie Parker referencing it in “Ornithology,” but this is something different— singing the world itself. Driving up to Pt. Reyes for a few days of hiking with several families, I got a little taste of this with my granddaughter Zadie.

It’s hard to resist not constantly hugging and kissing and wrestling with and joking with and singing and dancing with and talking with Zadie, but sometimes the greatest pleasure is simply to leave her alone and watch and listen. She sat in the back seat singing to herself an continuous improvised song incorporating the things outside the window, the people inside the car and whatever else surfaced in her own Dreamtime imagination. It was a wonder to be-hear and I believe my daughter Talia videotaped a bit, for some future lecture I may give on the innate musicality of all beings.

On the first day of hiking, I carried Zadie in the backpack and got another concert in my ear as we tramped through the woods and out onto the open fields. Naturally, we were far behind the group with no 30-lb. children in their backpacks and at one point, Zadie was getting hungry and a bit cranky. I saw the group up ahead on top of a hill and as we began to ascend the hill, it was my turn to soothe Zadie with song. Not exactly the songlines of Pt. Reyes, but I turned to my preschool class-starting repertoire and we ascended to the beat of Old King Glory, The Ants Go Marching, The Wheels on the Bus and were in the midst of Here We Go Loopty Loo when we joined the others. I kept singing and spontaneously, we all joined hands and circled around on the chorus and danced the verse with various body parts. I’ve vacationed with these families for some 25 years, but I believe that this was the first time we sang and danced Loopty Loo.

And how glorious it was to put our right hand in and take our right hand out and give our hand a shake-shake-shake and turn ourselves about on a high grassy knoll with the ocean spread out before us and a warm December sun shining and Zadie spinning happily on my back, all joined together in some timeless Dreamtime at the turn of the year, embraced by a California landscape and the circling song of traditions renewed, our children close to our age when we first began and now the first of the next generation with us as a promise to keep it going far beyond our own mortality. Loopty loo, loopty li, loopty loo, singing the world alive. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Lessons in Good Living

For the life of me, I don’t why we waste our time praying to this god or that, paying to this therapist or that, clogging our shelves with self-help books. All we need to do is hang out with a two-year old for a morning and learn at the feet of a master. Consider these life lessons from my granddaughter Zadie and try them out:

• Run down the hall. Then run up the hall. Repeat as needed.

• Have an imaginary phone conversation on a Radio Shack timer.

• Hug someone for no apparent reason.

• Take out all the credit cards from your wallet. Leave them out.

• Sing songs at the dinner table. No memorable lyrics or repeatable tune necessary.

• Walk around in circles happily talking to yourself.

• Play piano with your stuffy Eeyore at your side.

• Lie down on a pillow and enjoy a nice warm bottle of milk.

It’s as simple as that. Try it!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Best Christmas Present

Christmas has come and gone. Just one day after, I’ve already seen the first abandoned trees on street corners and it feels weird to hear Jingle Bell Rock or Silent Night. The boxes and wrapping paper are in the recycling bins and we’re searching for the receipts of the clothes that didn’t fit.

After a thorough cleansing of the front room (future blog coming on this fascinating subject), the lack of excessive gifts for me under the tree was a relief— few new things to file and store! As for gift-giving, after the initial stress, it does feel satisfying for me to look for things that add a little sparkle or opening door to my loved ones— a book, a CD, a new item of clothing, a ukelele. But perhaps the best gift I gave was helping Kerala and Ronnie go away for a night in Calistoga and leaving little Zadie in our care. And it was also the best gift I received.

After a dim sum breakfast, the parents-turned-lovebirds drove off and Karen, Aunt Talia and I took Zadie to a new playground. Talia took off just before the afternoon nap and suddenly there we were like in the old days— Karen and I in charge of a little one. But instead of the exhaustion of knowing it would be for 24 years, the sure knowledge that it was only 24 hours is the grand gift of grandparenting! Only the fun stuff and permission to bend or break a few rules!

Zadie graced us with a three and a half hour nap and then woke up ready to rock and roll. She began painting a fingerpainting with Karen and what a grand time she had! Then I brought up the Ghana xylophone and djembe and off we went for a rollicking jam session. She invented the game of playing and stopping on the xylophone, with me following her lead on the drum. Then we switched. From there, Karen and I worked on dinner while Zadie sang songs and told stories to her stuffy Eeyore and danced around perfectly content in circles. Such an independent young woman, able to effortlessly entertain herself without any help from electronic devices.

At dinner, we gave her a leftover green onion pancake heated up a bit too hot. A quick tear and then a healing song while it cooled down. The next pancake I served cold and she said, “Cold. It’s not hot.” Not something anyone would notice but a doting grandpa observing her thinking crystallizing into language, the way she made the connection of opposites. Later I sneezed and she said, :”Bless you.” And then, “Are you okay?” Up until this point, her language has been mostly repeating, but now it’s kicking into another gear of independent thought and surprising connections and observations. I don’t remember being quite this astounded with this stage with my own children, but then again, I was in the thick of the whole deal and probably didn’t feel the luxury of such detailed observation.

We all would have been happy to continue on with various activities after dinner, but having bonded with Zadie last May watching “Lady and the Tramp,” we decided to cozy in with popcorn and “Dumbo.” She made a running commentary on the rain and choo-choo train and elephants and “What happened?” and I was happy to revisit my own Disney childhood. And intrigued by the LSD-inspired (it seemed) Pink Elephant bit and the black-cultured crows singing and jiving to the “Did You Ever See an Elephant Fly?”

Then the bedtime routine of the bottle, book and night-night song and there it was, Zadie’s first night away from her parents. She saw them in the photos on the wall and commented and at one point nonchalantly said “Mama and Dada bye-bye,” but she is a model of the security that let her give herself over temporarily to Mima and Pop-pop, who turned out to be, if I may say so myself, pretty entertaining. We’ll see how tomorrow morning goes!

Meanwhile, keep these kind of Christmas presents coming!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holy Infant

The house was buzzing with activity—some of us wrapping presents, some cooking dinner, the electric train running in circles, Zadie playing, Ella Fitzgerald singing over the speakers, that lively spirit of family gatherings at the holidays. Then the decrescendo of the descending evening, little Zadie put to bed and her parents daring to sneak out to meet friends out in the city. Talia went to her apartment and it was just Karen and I left watching the Daily Show with the Fox News “Santa is white” hilarity.

Just as we turned it off, we heard the bedroom door open and Zadie came toddling down the hall nonchalanty in her PJ’s and joined us on the couch. We could have scolded her and sent her back to bed, but of course, we were delighted and spent the next 30 minutes with her drawing shapes in a little book and talking non-stop to us with a pacifier (her “bobo”) in her mouth. Between the bobo and her still-forming articulation, it sounded a bit like a running monologue in Mandarin Chinese. Every once in a while I asked Zadie if she wanted to go to bed and she responded clearly. “No.” Finally, with Karen falling asleep, I lured her back in with my guitar, lay her down with her Eeyore stuffie and sang “Silent Night” to her. “Sleep in heavenly peace” and lo and behold, she did.

I often talk about how the emergence of the Virgin Mary in the Christian mythology kicked off the fantastic explosion of art and culture in Europe in the Middle Ages. After a thousand years of the Dark Age, the appearance of the feminine both balanced and softened things, resulting in the building of cathedrals like “Notre Dame,” the composition of  music sung first to Mary and later to women by troubadours, trouveres and minnesingers, poems again first inspired by spiritual love for the Virgin and later, romantic love of the idealized woman (leading to Dante, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet all the way to Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe). The story of the Divine Mother captured the imagination of the people, not only inspiring great art, but swelling the numbers of Christian converts.

But it was equally the image of the “Holy Infant, so tender and mild” that sealed the deal. Who can resist the beauty of a mother’s love for a divine child, attended by “friendly beasts” away in a humble manger, announced by a star of wonder, witnessed by three kings bearing gifts. No wonder Christmas soon trumped the earlier more important Easter holiday. We all (I hope!) love babies, their innocence and wide-eyed wonder and the way they perpetually renew our hope for the future.

The house is very quiet now, just me awake with the tree while millions of still-innocent children are dreaming of sugarplums and the appearance of a Santa of any color (deal with it, Fox News!). We let go some of our time-honored Christmas Eve traditions tonight—didn’t drive out to see the luminaries on Mt. Davidson, didn’t light the house with candles only and gather around the piano for one final family carol sing. My daughters didn’t act out Frosty and Rudolf while Ella sang (well, they kind of stopped that in their teenage years anyway). No one left cookies out for Santa.

But no matter. I’ll treasure those quiet moments with Zadie on the couch drawing in her book and then singing to her and Eeyore. On this Christmas Eve, I wish you all a heavenly sleep and divine awakening. The Holy infant lives in us if we attend correctly, as I am reminded on this silent and holy night.

Revised Thoughts on the Wonders of Two-Year Olds

Oops! Forgot about tantrums.

Two Is the New Three

“’Twas the night before Christmas and all through my home
    Little Zadie was roaming—and so ends this poem!”

Because really, nothing more to say that can make that simple fact more extraordinary than it already is. And of course, I’m going to try to say it!

It’s not just that I love my granddaughter to the ends of this earth and love it that she’s here in San Francisco for this special time. It’s that being around a two-year old is like hanging out with Picasso, Louis Armstrong, Einstein and Robin Williams. Her fresh way of seeing the world, her ebullient and infectious spirit, her unrelenting curiosity and her spontaneous hilarity make her just about the most delightful person to spend time with that I know. I always have felt that three-years old was the height of the human experiment, my favorite age (along with 8th grade) to teach at school, but I’m finding myself astounded by the two-year old mentality. Just on the cusp of language and every day, new connections being made that are captured in the net of words.

Yesterday Zadie said “Uh-oh” and I countered with “spaghetti-o’s.” She repeated it, went on with her play and five minutes later, said “Uh-oh, spaghetti-o’s.” That “absorbent mind” (Montessori’s term) is a wonder to behold. The adult brain is clogged with fixed, rigid neuron connections with little room for new thoughts, ideas, never mind daily wonder. It’s like a perpetual meeting of the Tea Party in there— the same old, same old thoughts that were terrible to begin with mouthed over and over again, all so tired and predictable and inducing deadly slumber.

Zadie, by contrast, is a bundle of alertness, aliveness, surprise. “Whaz dat?” she asks as she walks through each day like a New World explorer. But without the greed of Columbus and certainly a better sense of humor.  She entertained us for twenty minutes yesterday looking at the picture of the snowman on her plate and exclaiming, “Dat’s funny!” and laughing uproariously. Now she’s looking at a book with her Grandma exclaiming “Ho ho ho!” when she sees Santa and making the sounds of the animals she sees. Yesterday she met a fellow two-year old, son of her mom Kerala’s childhood friend since birth who she hadn’t seen in fifteen years! Besides being a poignant moment, the hilarity doubled as the two sat side-by-side sharing—and yes, they actually shared!— a bag of fancy potato chips.

Last night we sat on the couch to watch “Miracle on 34th St.” It held up, but it was pale besides “The Miracle on 2nd Avenue.” And she calls to me now. “Bye, bye, computer…”

Friday, December 20, 2013

Home to Ithaca

After the closing singing time described in the last posting, all the staff went to the raucous and spirited White Elephant gathering. Great fun, but near the end, it became clear that some of the Interns had to leave. We rushed outside for a final photo back where we took the opening photo four months ago at the Opening Ceremony of school. The arc between the two ceremonies struck me. It began with the beckoning invitation of the kids (and Interns) first arriving at school, all possibility, promise, potential. Four months later, we stood in the same spot, with over 500 clasees behind us, scores of songs, dances and instrumental pieces learned, the ritual markers of Halloween and the Body Music Festival and the World Music Festival and the Holiday plays and the Middle School St. George echoing in our memory. The characters of the children revealed, the little breakthroughs and astounding moments, the character of the teachers and the whole of school culture witnessed and lived. Not to mention the wonders of San Francisco—Vertigo at the Castro Theater, Halloween on Belvedere St., the Sea Chantey Sing on the Balclutha, the Grace Cathedral labyrinth and view from the Crown Room at the Fairmount Hotel. The Interns moving from observers to participants to teachers and the marks that they left on the school, the children and each other. How much life we lived together in those short four months!

So there we were again, in the same spot where we took an opening photo, taking another one behind the Odyssey cardboard boat. It was too rushed for me to find the right words for our final hug. But they came just as I was leaving school. Something like this:

“Alice, Andrea, Banu, Celia, Christine and Lisa. We have been on an Odyssey together and the boat has come home to Ithaca. We survived our Cyclops, Sirens, Scylla, Charybidis, Circe, Apollo and Calypso moments and they were mild in the big picture. For most of the days, the sea was calm, the breeze balmy, the wine fine—very fine!—and the golden fruit of the children’s genius ripe for the tasting. We wove our garments, unwove the parts that didn’t work and re-wove them again. You were the first six to take this journey with us and we—Sofia, James and I— will hold you forever in our hearts. You have witnessed the risk and the planning, the surprising moments that revealed the children blossoming and the surprising moments that trampled the delicate flower of the class, you’ve seen the quick inspiration of the moment and the carefully unrolled unfolding of a class unit. You’ve seen us “in the zone” and “ out of sorts,” beheld us as confident captains of the ship and helpless sailors blown about by the wind. You’ve put your hands on the oar and risen to your own commanding possibilities. It has been a voyage of a lifetime and Ithaca was with us every moment of true sincerity, humor and creative gusto. May you be forever united with Penelope as you return to your homelands. Bon voyage!”

Singing Out the Year

For those following the thread, our play last night—The Odyssey— was a resounding success. With an adult live audience, the kids brought everything up a notch and people left uplifted. But no time to bask—there were more special moments ahead. This morning was the old school tradition of ice skating, a chance to hold a kid’s hand for a couple of loops around the ice and congratulate them on the play or reach out to them to steady our wobbly legs or for us to steady their’s. The ritual Hokey Pokey on ice and then back to school for 8th grade performances of St. George and the Dragon, brought to life with great verve, humor and new twists and turns.

Then switch the rugs, light the candles and in come 190 children from 1st through 8th grade to close out a glorious Fall with joyful song. With Wrong Words Day behind them, their voices were pure and their seriousness palpable. Kids love to be goofy and jivey and boisterous beyond adult tolerance, but they also can appreciate— and love and need— a silence charged with a luminous quiet and tenderness. And so with a Frosty here and a Winter Wonderland there to lighten the mix, we sang in the midnight clear of a silent night to the angels who were hearing us on high. And a glorious sound it was.

I accompanied on the piano and believe me, I tried my best to sing, but my body was racked with quiet sobs. To hear children sing beautiful music with such sincerity and see their shining ieyes and beautiful faces— well, it’s enough to melt the most hardened heart. And mine is perpetually on the soft side anyway.

So at the end when I tried to say some final words, I couldn’t. The kids heard the catch in my voice and saw the glistening tear forming as I tried to thank them for a beautiful ending to a beautiful Fall together. I squeaked something out and then made my ritual joke—“See you next year!” and dismissed them. Three first graders came over and patted me on the back to comfort me. The hearts of children are sometimes a wonder to behold.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reverse Hanukkah

Apparently, oil that should have lasted one day burning for eight qualified for enough of a miracle to create a holiday that’s lasted, oh say, some 2200 years. Well, I’d like to make a bid for a new Holiday based on a similar miracle. Our Elementary Holiday Play that lasted two hours in rehearsal clocked in at one hour and eight minutes in today’s first performance! Kind of a reverse oil-burning phenomena.

Where did those extra 52 minutes go? Mostly, just whisked away in hitting the rhythm of a play well-rehearsed with the motivation of an audience to tighten it all up. The audience was composed of fellow 4 to 8 year old kids at school, but the happy surprise for actors and directors alike was that the audience was silent and engaged, enthralled with a complex story they probably didn’t fully get, but delighted to see kids acting, in full costume, with great music, energetic dance, beautiful songs and booming group lines.

Tonight is the show for the grown-ups and though one can’t depend on miracles, it feels that the kids are prepared enough that I can be writing this blog two hours before the show instead of fretting about where Kevin’s F# bar is or whether Mary’s hat will stay on during her scene. At first nervous that I had invited friends and colleagues, now hopeful that they’ll come to see what it’s like when kids stop being 4th graders and are transformed through drama to draw you into a story where you stop thinking about their height. There are sublime moments when the kids transcend the school play cliché of dutiful schoolchildren reciting their lines on time while adults are thinking, “Isn’t that cute?” I told the kids that they’re better than “cute” and it’s their job to send chills up my spine. Which actually happened twice today during today’s performance.

After today’s daytime show, the miracles kept coming. The always delightful and long-awaited “Wrong Words Day,” the kids setting beards on fire, skiing into trees and walking around in women’s underwear. Then a delightful dress rehearsal of 8th grade’s St. George and the Dragon play, capped off by the six interns joining Sofia, James and I for their last preschool sing. We brought the room of 3, 4 and 5 year olds into a luminous quiet with our four-part harmony rendition of Silent Night and then romped together with the kids through The Twelve Days of Christmas with the “sacred cards” bought 40 years ago at Vella Variety Store on San Bruno Avenue.

You see why I don’t need to go to church. Nothing more miraculous than this constant communion and creative convocation of people of all sizes and shapes singing together through the joys and griefs of the year. Every day angels bending near the earth and strumming their harps of gold, singing all types of song and playing all sorts of grooving rhythms. Come hear them tonight! After all, it’s only an hour and eight minutes long.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stripping Away the Extraneous

The composer Arnold Schoenberg once said, “A composer’s most important tool is an eraser. ” I imagine this is true of all art forms. First splash everything out you can imagine and then start to trim and weed, to cut and erase, to strip away every extraneous part that distracts from the essence of the piece, that leads to a side street interesting in itself, but irrelevant to the forward motion of the story or trajectory. It’s sometimes hard to take away what you created so painstakingly, but if everything else you created is clouded with too much or thrown off course or bogged down, then what’s the point? I think Schoenberg was rightly suggesting that the heart of artistry is feeling your way through what’s essential and what’s dispensable, figuring out what notes not to play, what words not to say.

Some people have an innate gift for the well-placed word, the well-timed comment, the perfectly chosen note, the just-right seasoning, but for the rest of us folks, we begin by trying to say everything and if we are lucky, start to trim it down. It’s a typical mistake of the young, flashy jazz player, trying to fill the canvas with every note imaginable while the old ones listen carefully for what notes needs to be played next. Some of it is temperament and some even technique— how could Art Tatum resist his flashy runs and maybe Count Basie’s technique was limited but put to good use?

This is on my mind the night before our 3rd-4th-5th grade play of the epic story The Odyssey. An epic story that doesn’t exactly work as an epic children’s play. And so all our tools were out full force—erasers, delete buttons, scissors, whatever we needed to cut this down to a palatable size. Without taking away too much from the work the kids already put into it. Of course, if they delivered their lines with the full force of their stage voice in an articulated tempo with grand gesture and facial expression like we tell them to, none of this would be a problem. In our regular classes, their oversized voices interrupt our lessons and need to be taken down three notches. When they get on stage and have the opportunity to announce themselves to the world, why, that’s when they choose to whisper. Of course. And so the little darlings deserve the cuts they get!

But honestly, we— my colleagues James, Sofia and I—wrote the scripts and have to take some responsibility for our grand sweeping visions and large appetites. Each of us worked alone with one of the respective grades and thus, each scene in itself seemed like it would be great. It’s when we put them all together that we looked at each other in horror. Two hours and 18 hard-to-hear scenes? And the show is tomorrow? We better get out the eraser big time.

As with art, so with life. And here I speak directly to myself: “Curb your appetite. Choose one, two or three essential things and do them well. Maybe just two. Heck, maybe just one! Tune your ear to the main theme and eliminate the dross. Write shorter blogs. And so…

Monday, December 16, 2013

Wood and Weeds

542 Sheridan Ave. Roselle, New Jersey. That’s where I grew up. Zip code (which came in later)— 07203. Phone number 245-7097, memorized as CH(estnut) 5-7097. These are things we apparently remember forever, emblazoned in the brain and stamped forever on the heart. 18 years in the same house before going off to college and my old room there for me for years later. Until 1992, when my folks moved to follow my sister and I out to California. I was thrilled to welcome them and sad to say goodbye to that house. In fact, I wrote a letter just to the house, thanking it for everything it meant to me. I never got an answer.

I still dream about it, often with my folks in it. In these dreams, I’m aware that the house has been sold, but the new owners are indefinitely away and seem to feel fine about us coming back there to live. And so I tour the old place in that dream world, happy to see the chin-up bar in my bedroom doorway, the oak tree out the window, the fireplace that rarely had a fire, the back studio with glass windows looking out to the apple tree and our tilting garage, the organ in the living room and piano in the dining room, the long couch and small TV and big dining room table where my Dad paid bills and played solitaire, the cozy kitchen nook and the milkbox by the side door and on and on. I always awake refreshed by these dreams, ready to face the next day of the future warmed by the embrace of the past.

I dreamt about it again last night and realized why. I had just seen the film Nebraska and there’s a scene in which the aging father returns to the house he grew up in, now abandoned and sitting empty in some field. His son asks whether he was moved to see the old place and he replied something to the effect of “Why should I be? It’s just a bunch of wood and weeds.” And yet one could imagine the lives that had once been lived in those rooms with now broken windows and if one cared to, feel the presence of the old ones alive again in that collection of wood and weeds. But some such houses were filled with constant pain and why would one want to remember?

Though I haven’t seen it for some five years, I’m sure that 542 is still standing and new lives are being lived there. And that the mostly happy childhood I lived there is untouchable and visitable through the dreams that come unbidden and also the ones I conjure up. I can smell the fresh pine of the Christmas tree and don’t need to strain a neuron remembering the Silent Night Christmas ball ornament, for it sits in the center of my tree here, now, in this moment. The wood is freshly painted and the weeds pulled up through the caretaking of memory. It’s a wonderful life indeed.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

It's Great Getting Old!

That title sentence is not one you hear very often. And I only say it because I can still ride my bike up the 3rd Ave. hill and hike the Inca Trail, the bodily organs seem to be working and I only occasionally fall asleep at the movies. Of course, the mirror is brutal, noisy restaurants are hell, I have to keep upgrading my glasses and it’s sobering to check out the women in the bar only to realize they see me as the Invisible Man or Grandpa. But there is great satisfaction in the aging process. I’m talking about little spiritual breakthroughs that never would have happened if I had died young.

Hard to put my finger on in with articulate language, but it has something to do with acceptance, forgiveness and that sometimes dubious notion of personal growth (beyond the waistline). “Sometimes dubious” because part of acceptance is to realize that parts of us ain’t never gonna change and as long as it’s not the part that buys assault weapons, acceptance is a better strategy than constant failure. But then, some surprising things happen. Like noticing that I’m reacting differently to situations that previously would have set me off, that certain buttons that provoked particular reactions when pushed are finally (or at least temporarily) disconnected. Things like shifting the weight from “will this benefit me?” to “will this benefit others?” Things like releasing that whiny, needy little boy or life-is-unfaired teenager and freeing up space in the heart for noticing other’s needs and how I might serve them. They’re all moving targets, but lately I’ve noticed a few satisfying bulls-eyes and I attribute it to the promise of aging gracefully.

Then there is getting to be a Grandpa and having my first jazz band (so much fun playing and teaching together at SF Jazz Center yesterday!) and being at school staff meetings with my daughter and comforting my Mom with classical piano music that I’m playing better than I ever have. None of it would have happened if I had checked out early.

“Let my enemies live long to see what I have become” is a West African proverb and the title of a play I once saw. Read one way, there is a touch of spite in it (“in your face, Mr. Bully!”), but also an opening for enlarged compassion. And it can read reversed: “Let me live long to see what my enemies have become.” In any case, the real punch line is “Let me live long!” At least short of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, nurses taking me to the bathroom, etc.

Fate willing, I’m in it for the long haul and at least for now, happily so. If I had the chance to hear my eulogies at my funeral, what’s the one line I’d like to hear more than “He was smart, talented, kind, a family man, a faithful friend, etc.”? 

“Look! He’s moving!”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Singing in the Fast Lane

Yesterday I helped direct two different plays with three different classes, went caroling around school with 50 preschoolers, sang with100 elementary kids, then zipped off to my Mom’s for more songs around the piano and then back to school to sing with a gathering of 25 alums, some who had graduated 30 years ago (and they remembered all the songs!). Today I’m off to SF Jazz Center to lead more singing (and playing and dancing) with the families going to the Family Concert there. Next week will be our annual neighborhood caroling party— yet more singing with a whole different group of people. All this from a guy who never sang as a kid, was not immersed in a culture of singing, remembers two songs his Dad would sometimes sing—“There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” and his original composition, “Piggy Piggy Poo.”

Days like this are insane by any standard of life lived at a reaonsable tempo. I’m hurtling down the fast lane of the highway without a moment’s rest to even see the flowers I’m rushing by, never mind smell them. But inside the car, singing with whoever happens to be in the back seat, there is a connection that nothing else quite can make in the same way. I’m not a great singer by any reasonable standard and I don’t even habitually sing in the shower, but I love the way a shared song charges the air and momentarily erases those bothersome distances we create between each other. And so in rushing helter-skelter from one thing to another with barely a rest stop, I’m sustained and uplifted and energized by the power of song.

In our fantasies of Heaven, there are harps and heavenly choirs, while Hell is a mess of undisciplined shrieking and moaning. I still need to consider a more leisurely pace in my hectic life, but as long as there’s music, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. And heck, plenty of time for rest when I’m six-feet under. Maybe it’s just fine to keep zooming down the fast lane while the car still works and people are still sending me invitations.

Time for the SF JAZZ gig. Off I go! Whhheeeeeeeee!!!! 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Quiz— The Answers

Answers to yesterday’s quiz:
  1. Hannukah. Jesus was Jewish.
  2. None. I think you know why.
  3. None. There can be snow in a Bethlehem winter, but no reindeer.
  4. No one. Ain’t no mistletoe where he lived. And they didn’t have office parties back then anyway.
  5. No one. Hallmark hadn't been incorporated yet.
  6. Huh?
  7. None. St. Francis added them into the story over a thousand years later.
  8. They didn’t. But they did have pine trees.
  9. Get up and go to work. The first recorded reference to Christmas (Christ’s Mass) was in 1038. Easter was the main holiday until the Virgin Mary and Santa Claus came into the picture. (Huh?)
  10. Irving Berlin. And he lived in L.A. where it never snowed. 
If you can think of a weirder, wackier holiday pieced together with so many diverse traditions, I’d like to know about it. So as I go hang out with Frosty the Snowman in a San Francisco Winter Wonderland and Deck the Halls with ivy while looking out for Rudolf’s Red Nose flying over a Partridge in a Pear-Tree, this Jewish Unitarian Buddhist practicing pagan rites says, "I Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Quiz

When my daughter Talia was little, we drove past a front lawn displaying both Santa and his sleigh and Jesus in the manger. With all that honest innocence of children, she asked, “What’s Jesus doing there? What does he have to do with Christmas?!!” 

This little anecdote could be a confession of our failure as parents to take our kids to a Christian church— or a prelude to the Christmas Quiz I just made up. I’m going for the latter. See how you do:

1. What holiday did Jesus celebrate around Christmas-time?
2. In what book of the Bible did Santa Claus appear?
3. How many reindeer brought the Wise men to Bethlehem by sleigh?
4. Who did Joseph kiss under the mistletoe?
5. Historically speaking (and grammatically correct), to whom did the Popes send Christmas cards before the 20th century?
6. Did the Easter bunny and St. Nick ever meet?
7. What animals surrounding Jesus in the manger are mentioned in the Bible?
8. When did the Israelites decorate their Christmas trees back then?
9. What was a typical Christmas celebration like in the year 1000?
10. What Jewish songwriter wrote “White Christmas?”

 Answers will appear in the next Blog (thus upgrading my reader count). Good luck!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Records of My Life

I know many of you are enduring sleepless nights wondering whether I ever got to cleaning my front room. Well, today I opened that Pandor'a box, beginning with the videos, DVD’s, CD’s and records. Yes, records. (And yes, videotapes.) In my 1,000 plus collection, most are stored in my basement, but 150 or so took up valuable shelf-space that I’ve desparately needed from my overflowing CD collection. (And I predict in a year or so, I’ll have to say to young people, “Yes, CD’s. You actually bought them in a store and put them on a shelf and put them in a player to play. And occasionally read the micro-printed liner notes.")

When records first switched to CD’s, I vowed not to duplicate the ones I had bought. That, of course, changed and over the years, I assumed I had indeed replaced the important recordings I cared about— things like Coltrane’s  A Love Supreme, Duke Ellington’s  Live at Newport, Sonny Rollins Tenor Madness and into an “and so on” that would take up several pages. But going through the records above, I realized that indeed I hadn’t. And looking again through my collection, I felt like the kid in the candy store, re-discovering old gems I had forgotten. Made more amazing by the fact that I tried out my old turntable and discovered it worked just fine. I could actually listen to them! And listen I did while I continued to sort, discard, re-shelf.

Damn, it felt good to hold the old records in my hand! To relish the art work on the cover, to be able to read the print on the back, to remember sometimes where I bought it and who I was at that moment and who that recording helped me become. Indeed, these records in my life are also a record of my life. Without a strong cultural identity to mold and shape me, I realized early on that my American gift (and limitation) was to try to create my own identity from the confluence of my passions and interests. Of course, TV and movies did their part to define some of my dreams and notions, as did my family, my friends, my schools, my time— whatever was in the news or being talked about in the day-to-day conversations. But the act of conscious cultivation of the person I hoped to be came from books and records— and to some extent, still do. With the added attraction of me writing and recording my own.

I was sharing with a friend my frustration with the floating cloudworld of recordings these days, how hard it is for me to find space on my computer for the digital files and how much I missed the concrete object in my hand, be it a record or CD— or book (though still resisting Kindle). By the end, I realized I may indeed have to capitulate and go the i-Phone route. But I'm trying to imagine growing up in this digital world and 50 years from now, going through old digital files and seeing a title on the screen. Ain’t no-way no-how that can compare with the whole gestalt of the trip to the record store, the prized object brought home, read, listened to, shelved and proudly displayed as the next chapter in “the emerging Me.” And then held in the hand again all those years later. I'm grateful for it, am loving listening to them again, am determined not to get rid of them. I just have one nagging question:

“Anyone have an extra attic to store them all in?”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yo Heave Ho Amen!

I did it again. Went to the Sea Chantey sing-a-long aboard the Balclutha ship on the Hyde St. Pier. People of all ages, sizes and shapes huddled together in a simple low-ceiling room while the song leader enters, sits down, sings a line and the room erupts in a lusty full-bodied response. Those who don’t know it quickly catch on and off we go! Two hours, with breaks for hot cocoa and cider, of song after song begun by whoever has the spirit. (I finally screwed up the courage to do one!). No big egos or efforts to impress, just the pleasure of people singing together with a power that I’ve only found in the African diaspora with it’s call and response traditions. Indeed, I sometimes felt as if I was in a Baptist church in the American South or a candomble ceremony in Brazil, no tambourines or drums, but an earthy beat in every ditty matched by glorious bass tones and whole body singing, witty lyrics, little stories and the longing of sailors to be “homeward bound.” We simply sat and sang the songs the sailors traditionally worked to, but you could feel the heave of the anchor and the pulling up of sail, the chapped and blistered hands, the sweat of your neighbor joined with you on the rope, it all came through.

No performance this, no ticket price, a room of strangers (though obviously regulars) instantly connected, a palpable energy in the shared tones that shook every atom of the body. It was everything that church should be, minus the dogma and theology. Indeed, I’ve always wondered why we need the word God and why all the fuss about a book with blatantly contradictory and often downright weird stories? God is not something to believe in or wonder about or accept on faith or be converted to by somebody else’s story. God is to be experienced in the marrow of the bones, the chambers of the heart, the electrical and chemical explosions in the brain, the rise and fall and bellows of the breath.
Prayer is not asking for something with mere words. It’s in the very act of chanting, poetically praising, singing from the bottom of your toes that God comes out from the hiding place. We’re not primed to find the Holy Spirit in lusty songs praising alcohol and the lovely maidens of Plymouth Town, but there it was.

Stepped out from the warmth of singing bodies to the winter night of a sparkling San Francisco, the lights of Ghiradelli Square, the waters lapping at the shore, the songs echoing in my ear and to quote my friend Chris Cunningham, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Friday, December 6, 2013

Forgiving Mr. Salcito

The mercury dropped last night in San Francisco and a rare frost covered the morning ground. And now, the rains have come and all these commonplace happenings take on a mythological significance as Nelson Mandela has crossed to the other side. The rains are both an auspicious sign of life renewed and tears of farewell to a great man. Listening to the radio this morning, I couldn’t help but be struck by the personal stories of journalists who had had the good fortune to meet him, all moved by his humble and personable manner, his humor, wit and gracious bearing, his listening ear, made all the more remarkable by his stature of a man of great inner power, courage and vision. And made yet more remarkable by his stories of 27 years in prison, a prison within a society already imprisoned by hatred, fear, racism, ignorance and brutality.

27 years! I’m still bitter that I didn’t get my promised prize for winning the pie-eating contest in 4th grade! This man spent almost three decades in jail and emerged loving his enemies, forgiving his tormentors and meeting each day with optimism, hope, gratitude forged from the depths of human suffering. What a story.

It occurred to me that almost everyone else of his stature, those who combined spiritual victory with political struggle for human rights and dignity— from Gandhi to Martin Luther King and so on down through Malcolm X, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Che Guevara— all met an untimely death from an assassin’s bullet. To reach the ripe age of 95, to achieve the unthinkable and become President at an age when most people had packed away their dreams and are content to go golfing, to see some of the fruits of his work ripen, is an extraordinary achievement. And equally to see some rot and spoil, to see some of his own people squander the full measure of freedom and responsibility and stay caught in the tangle of violence that still characterizes some of life in South Africa, must have been cause for another kind of bitterness. And yet he seemed to keep his whole humanity intact. People often lament that they don’t make ‘em like they used to—no new heroes coming down the pike. And yet here he was amongst us, spanning two different centuries and keeping his eye on the prize. As the radio commentators said, “We’re not likely to see a person of this caliber again.”

Or will we? I have a few candidates amongst my students between 3 and 13 years old. If we keep feeding them what they need to grow a true character and a constant vision, who knows what can happen?

As for me, I publicly proclaim that I forgive Mr. Salcito for neglecting to give me that pie-eating prize. I’m over it. No more bitterness, ready to embrace the world with wholehearted love, compassion, empathy and optimism. And I owe it all to Nelson Mandela.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Life in a Square of Cardboard

Yesterday’s 8th grade jazz history lesson began with me showing a 12-by-12 blank square of cardboard. “This changed my life,” I proclaimed and I believe I had their attention. A little more banter and then I turned it around. It was the album cover (just the front—the back had been torn off) of Joshua Rifkin playing Scott Joplin rags. I told the story of the 1971 Thanksgiving dinner at my college where someone was playing this album. Thoroughly enchanted and intrigued by music unlike any I had ever heard, I went and bought some of Joplin’s piano music. In addition to some F blues I had been fooling around with, my entry into the world of jazz piano began.

From my personal story to Joplin’s story of success, dissolution, fall into obscurity, rise to fame a half-century later with Joshua Rifkin’s album and the movie The Sting. From Joplin’s story to the greater story of the emergence of ragtime and its influence musically (Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” and on to why it wasn’t quite jazz yet (no swing, all notes written and composed without expectation of improvisation, no blues, etc.). From there to the greater story of Queen Victoria’s death two years after Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” topped the sheet-music sales, the shift in atmosphere as her libertine son Edward helped unleash white culture from its prudish and proper ways. How ragtime was the soundtrack of youthful freedom, folks looking to black culture to learn how to loosen up, get in touch with their hips and learn how to party beyond the upraised pinky holding the teacup.

Back to Joplin’s music, me playing the Maple Leaf Rag on the piano in his style and then loosening it up with a Jelly Roll Morton version that was swinging, with a more percussive touch and some improvisation. And now on to Mr. Ferdinand La Menthe Morton, his life in New Orleans, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that pre-dated Rosa Parks by some 60 years that ended in the Jim Crow laws, throwing educated Creoles like Jelly Roll together with the black folks from the Mississipi Delta. One group helped the other learn instrumental technique and how to read music, the other shared the soul of the blues and improvisation and now the roots of jazz were fully nourished and prepared to flower into a genius named Louis Armstrong. To be continued next week.

In one 45-minute period, music, history, biography, culture, personal anecdotes, politics, aesthetics, film, architecture (Victorian and Edwardian houses in San Francisco). On one hand, open to critique as TMI for any coherent understanding, on the other, a model lesson of how all things are interconnected. Not only isn’t it enough just to play jazz without knowing its history, but it’s a lost opportunity to show how that history started things in motion that changed and evolved through time to become this present moment. How they continue to affect the way things are, how we think, who we are and what different choices we might make as to who we will become if only we knew. And though a significant part of my jazz history class uses my personal DVD collection and Youtube to help make that history come alive, this class was taught via the ancient art of storytelling, aided by the technology of a piano.

And most importantly, a square of cardboard. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

First-World Problems

Twelve hours in the car yesterday and now preparing my way back to the workaday world. The re-entry began with a lost school planning book, a sketchy printer, six pounds heavier on the bathroom scale, a refrigerator with condiments only until I get to the store. Each one annoying and eliciting inappropriate small oaths and each worthy of the new mantra my daughter introduced me to: “First-World Problem. Get over it.”

Really, in light of famine, tsunamis, war, openly repressive governments, these all are so small and deserve being put in their proper perspective. Don’t get me wrong— all of the above are possible and can (and do) exist in these so-called First-World countries. And I certainly don’t mean this in any arrogant “I’m so glad I’m an American” kind of way. But truth be told, I live in a prosperous country in a privileged position and become accustomed to things that are supposed to work, that are supposed to be fair, that seem to exist to serve my every need and are deserving of my outrage when they fail to please me. From the bus that’s late to the wireless that cuts out in the middle of sending an e-mail to the Xerox machine that’s broken just before my class. First-World Problems that deserve to be cut down to their trivial size.

My sister called from my Mom’s place and it was another bad day for her 92-year old body and mind. This is an All-World Problem, even as she is being given care in a fine facility paid for by insurance. In this, we are united and in these moments, called upon to enlarge our compassion. For no one escapes from the ravages of time, the capriciousness of health, the disappointments of dreams that never found their feet— and if that’s not enough, the battlescarred fields of love and marriage. We’re all in it up to our necks—might as well slog through it together. And commiserating over broken printers just ain’t enough to … Dang! My wireless cut out!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Miraculous Speech

If these blogs have been remiss in crowing about my fabulous granddaughter, it’s only because I don’t want to waste a minute of time with her spent writing about her instead. But now that she's napping, I'm off trying to sneak one in. If she already stole my heart the moment I first saw her almost two years ago, now it’s on ongoing case of breaking and entering. In the mere three days since I’ve been here, her spoken vocabulary has virtually doubled! It’s an extraordinary feat to witness, this explosion of language and how it changes her life.

Her Dad relayed in hilarious pantomime a look she used to give him sitting on the couch before she was mobile, one he interpreted as “I’m really not happy that I have to sit here while you get to walk around.” And it’s true that she seemed more content crawling and then walking and now jumping, skipping, galloping and oh my, the dancing! More independence, more control, more choice, more freedom, more opportunity to get to explore this big wide world.

And now the same is true as she inhales each new word and starts to piece together her own forming thoughts and needs and desires and observations in little sentences. Why do we make such a fuss about oil on Hanukah or the Virgin of Guadulupe? Isn’t this miracle enough? And as she speaks, she gains a different kind of control, a different freedom of expression, a different way to explore and get to know the world. And she is markedly happier because of it all.

From these short phrases to the eventual  jewels of Shakespeare on the tongue, language’s promise to both make sense of apparent chaos and bathe in its soothing music. The truth may set us free, but the truth articulated in eloquent language will make us freer yet, showering us with controlled expression and expressive control. It gives us the inner power that is the best antidote to the temptation of firearms and killer video games and addictive shopping and ceaseless swearing.

And hearkening back to an old essay of mine, Dance, Sing and Read, I hold by my sense that expressing oneself through the articulated body, through the singing voice, through ideas beautifully spoken and understood, is a pretty good way to navigate through this life. Zadie is enjoying the first fruits of all three and it is a wonder to behold.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pilgrims in Bikinis

Such a pleasure to have the whole family together at Thanksgiving for the first time in five years! It was a sunny day in Portland, Oregon and little Zadie kept us smiling, laughing and amazed the whole day. The meal was an abundance of fabulous food lovingly prepared and joyfully shared by our new extended families with nephew Ian and his in-laws. At one point, people shared unusual Thanksgivings they have had and Talia told of hosting 40 people in Buenos Aires with a turkey defrosted overnight in a bathtub and changing the water every 30 minutes. Then cooking the whole meal the next day in bikinis. (November is summer in Argentina.)

And so—kaching!— the title for a blog that deserves to be more amusing. Had the Pilgrim ancestors witnessed the bikini cooking, I imagine there would have been enough rolling over in the grave to make New England San Francisco’s rival in earthquakes. Too tired at the end of the long day to take the image farther, but you’re welcome to borrow it and perhaps win a short story contest. Pilgrims in bikinis. Imagine that.

Testing for Teachers

How do you know whether you’re meant to be a teacher? How can you tell if you have what it takes? How can you check or how can others help you evaluate if you’re ready?

Giving a workshop to classroom teachers the other day, I came up a little test to see who's qualified to be a teacher, three signs that this path is right for you and it’s right for the children. One out of three is sometimes sufficient to qualify for the honor of leading children toward their future. Two is better and if you’re not three for three, at least you might consider aiming yourself in that direction. The list:

  1. Love the children
  2. Love your craft.
  3. Love ideas.

Love the children. This is perhaps the beginning and end of the matter. You love being around children, their fresh minds, their energetic bodies, their astoundingly compassionate (or occasionally innocently cruel) hearts. You think about them before and after class.

Love your craft. You’re a science teacher obsessed with the dung beetle, an English teacher enamored by Emily Dickinson, a math teacher who wakes up in the morning to converse with numbers. As a result, your students suddenly are fascinated by the dung beetle, are inspired to write Emily Dickinson-style poems about the dung beetle, are analyzing the syllable structure of Emily’s body of work or are counting the eggs of the dung beetle. Education as infection, the overflow of your passion spilling out to the children.

Love ideas. Education abounds with ideas about the human mind and how it grows, the human heart and how it develops, the human body and how it can be trained for eloquence and expression. It is the place where culture and community can be consciously nurtured (or sadly neglected) and a place found worthy of our great thinkers— neuroscientists, philosophers, poets, psychologists, artists and beyond. One fertile idea can transform an entire classroom as we consider the art and science of teaching.

Some fine teachers love children and never read a single book about education, some like them well enough, but are passionate about pedagogy, some don’t think much about educational philosophy or dream about the children, but show up with their enthusiasm for their subject every day. Lots of combinations possible and worthwhile to reflect on your own teaching style. But one word of advice. If you’re 0 for 3, get out now. You’ll hurt yourself and hurt the children and goodness knows, there’s plenty of other jobs that pay more!

Meanwhile, note the common verb in my list above. A word that is conspiculously absent from the public debate about schools and education. A word that should be evoked at the beginning and end of every teacher-training program. A word that should be uppermost in our mind as we slog through the day-today. Love, love and again, love. That’s why you’re a teacher.

Monday, November 25, 2013

10,000 Hours

Hurtling East on highway 80 in the California night, listening to a book on tape through a complicated system of an ancient Walkman connected to a cassette tape converter. On my way to Grass Valley for a workshop with classroom teachers tomorrow after a stimulating World music Rehearsal practicing an Indian vocal rhythm piece with that marvelous language. “Kitataka Terekita Ta Dhin Ta-ki-ta Ta.” The syllables flowing from the lips of experienced practitioners like liquid honey while us clumsy newcomers trip over our own tongues.

The book I’m listening to is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, a surprising look at what makes successful people successful that debunks much of the “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” mythology (and what the heck are bootstraps anyway?). But referring to other research, the 10,000 hour truth is invoked— ain’t nothing worthy accomplished without putting in your 10,000 hours of focused practice. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Only one punch line possible here and despite my naïve “just feel it” and “disciplined practice is so compulsive and boring” coming of age in the mellow “be here now” late 60’s, there simply is no way to sidestep that truth.

There is another blog waiting about how the “get there later” that practice implies can also be the “be here now” if we consider a different approach to practice, especially one more social and fun in company with others instead of being locked away in Conservaotry practice rooms. I love that Zen is called Zen practice rather than Zen faith and belief, meaning that mediation is the verb of our intuition that the world is a spiritual place and our daily practice renews and deepens our understanding of that essential fact. I like that doctors have a practice, though I hope they’re not stumbling over their beginning scales on my body. Practice implies that we are perpetually on our way and never wholly arrived, always approaching mastery and that’s why my field (the one where I’ve truly done my time— probably approaching 30,000 hours of classes with kids!) insists on the term “the Orff approach.” 

In my advancing old age, I’m finally seeing both the wisdom, efficacy and joy of practice. Gave my second duet house concert the other night with the always-inspiring Joshi Marshall and lo and behold, we entered new territory having done this twice in the same month. And the time I’m spending with Chopin, Beethoven, Scarlatti, Grieg and Charlie Parker daily kicking my butt is paying off as my fingers fly over the keys. Practice works!

I spent some of my drive reviewing the Indian syllables, trying to relax my tongue so they could flow more effortlessly. A good way to keep awake and a good place to practice!

One down. 9, 999 to go.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Keepin' It Real

“Is this real? Is this real? This life I am living?”

This morning I emerged from morning meditation and stepped outside with compost bucket in hand. Walked barefoot over the rain-soaked earth through wet golden leaves, inhaled the pungent smell of decay in the compost bin and re-entered the house a different person, brought back to some solid ground of “real.” And I remembered the Haida Indian song above quoted in an old Gary Snyder book of essays.

I always thought of this quote as one of those partings of the veil between waking and dreaming, that sense that all is illusion, that sliver of doubt that drives seekers to Buddhism or art or a general habit of deep-questioning. But many layers to this simple inquiry. It might also be asking, “Is this authentic, the life I have chosen? Is this life I have chosen aligned with the life that has chosen me? Is this what I’m meant to be doing and are these people the people I’m meant to do it with and is this place the place I’m meant to do it in?” All questions, like the best questions, that simply lead to other questions and keep us honest, keep us moving, "keep it real.” Going through the school gates each day to the bubbling laughter and yelps and shouts of children, tucked into my window seat on the plane on the way to the workshop, seated at the piano preparing for the next house concert, that sense of authenticity is always by my side. In a different way, the same roasting root vegetables, curled up on the couch with Hitchcock on the screen or blanketed in the bed with Dickens in my hand, all reminders of the real life that has blessed me and I’ve been blessed to recognize and pursue.

At school yesterday, an 8th grader was talking about her new favorite ap on her phone— something that makes the sound of rain and invokes a certain indoors-coziness she values. Well, at least this was an aesthetic appreciation, but these days, the old quote carries a new layer of meaning as we ensconce ourselves in a virtual life far away from bare feet on wet earth and decaying compost. Is reality TV real? Is shopping at Walmart? Are Facebook friends real friends? Is walking through the world talking non-stop through thin wires without attending to the place we’re walking real? Are the 56 messages in my e-mail box awaiting my response the real life I hoped to live?

Just wondering. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Birthday in the Clouds

Dad, today would have been your 95th birthday. I remember as a kid lying on the grass in Warinanco Park near our house looking up at the shifting faces in the clouds and wondering if it was the departed souls looking down at us. It was a sweet thought. I’d like to do that today and look for you, but hey, I still have a job and besides, there’s a light rain. I imagine birthdays lose their meaning once you’ve crossed to the other side, but for us mortals left here, it is yet another way to remember and keep you alive in our hearts.

There’s much I wish you could see here— and perhaps you do. Your great-granddaughter’s 2nd birthday yesterday, her jumping on the bed while we Skyped, stopping in mild alarm when I played my bagpipe and then continuing her jumping to gaida music! Tearing open the puzzle present Karen sent and doing it right away, while naming all the colors of the different shapes. I wish you could see Kerala, your first grandchild, as a mother and know how wonderful she is. And how proud you would be of Ronnie on his way to becomine a doctor in chiropractic school. We will spend Thanksgiving with them next week in Portland and what a pleasure that will be!

I want you to know what a joy it is to get a snack in the school kitchen and have Talia walk in. Yes, she’s teaching first grade here and she’s a marvel, beloved by kids, parents and fellow staff alike. I wish she liked old black-and-white movies as much as I do and sit next to me on the couch to enjoy them together, but in the list of disappointments that we might have in our own children, that’s pretty small!!

Karen’s in her 40th year at school, I’m in my 39th and we both still like our work as much as we did all those years back. That’s a gift beyond measure. Ariel came over yesterday and commented that in my Conference I went to the Hambone Summit— while I got to slap my body silly, she was listening to how to make numbers behave on screens. And amidst the avalanche of electronic technology that has fallen into just about every corner of life, Karen still has to prepare the paints, wet the clay, take out the weaving materials while leading children into the pleasure of self-expression with things that get their hands dirty. Hooray for that!

And then there’s Mom. Still with us at 92 and many days I wonder why. Nothing much left but lying in bed and eating. But then she perks up and starts talking and smiles while I play piano or inhales the fresh air in the garden and exclaims, “Isn’t that lovely?” Five years now the faithful son visiting her at least twice a week and though she won’t remember it, I’ll mention your birthday.

That’s the news, Dad, such as it is. Hope the clouds are not littered with the frivolous i-Cloud droppings of our earthly life and you have a moment to look down and smile. I know you’re there somewhere.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Love Poem to My School

Today I opened a small book to enter the large world of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was a Jesuit priest who was a conflicted poet and crafted perhaps some of the most intense, dense and condensed poems in the English language. He was a master of alliteration and wrote whole essays on the intricacies of his theories of poetic rhythms. Though Christ and God enter his work, he mostly praises their handiwork—sea and skylarks, rose-moles and brinded-cows, kingfishers and dragonflies and other glories of this sweet earth.

This morning, my eye fell on a casual poem he wrote in the visitor’s book at a place called Penmaen Pool. It struck me that by keeping the form and cadence and changing the words, I could write an ode to my place of work, The San Francisco School. Many years back I wrote a song about the school to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema that we still sing at graduation and Side by Side is informally our national anthem, but I thought it would be distinctive to have a school poem. As my mind began churning, there was a familiarity to it all and due to some surprising organization on my part, I actually found it on my computer— I had done this back in 2008!! So today, I added one verse, re-thought a few things and voila! our school poem was re-born. And so I offer it here. Best if read out loud.

(Derived from and parts outright stolen from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Penmaen Pool)

Who long for rest, who look for pleasure
Away from counter, court or pool.
Oh where live well your lease of leisure
But here at, here at SF School?

You’ll dare the drum, you’ll risk the riff,
Each craft has here its tackle and tool.
Come clasp the crevice and climb the cliff
Ascend the scale at SF School.

From what’s yonder past  freeway’s roar,
That crooked world of cool or cruel,
Those droning dreams that bellow or bore,
You’ll find respite at SF School.

You’ll build pink towers, trace sanded letter
Sketch a cat, a dog, a mule
Let go best and strive for better
‘longside your friends at SF School.

Here’s both sun and stormy weather,
Both blazing heat and gusty cool.
Where side by side we walk together
Here at The San Francisco School.

Here we touch-taste-smell and see
And stitch it through with Golden Rule,
We are the change we want to be,
Though mere mortals we at SF School.

Here parents play and parents pay
And parents pray for teachers who’ll
Lift their children into the day
Of learning loving at their school.

So come who pine for peace or pleasure
Away from counter, court or pool,
Spend here your measure of time and treasure
And taste the treats of SF School.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Holding on for the Ride

A joyful evening of wild dancing to live music (ah, the poor DJ’ed generation, you don’t know what you’re missing!) to top off my 32nd national Orff Conference, with a a gin and tonic chaser at the bar with the party folks and four too-short hours of sleep before boarding the plane home from Denver. Planning the upcoming plays with my colleagues in row 32, landing home to a sunny San Francisco and the good sense to sit in the yard with a fresh apple, walnuts, my handwritten journal and a pen. And what did I write about?

The fall leaves on the table. The quiet city hum sitting in a spot of sun. The review of the glorious moments in the four-day Conference alongside the usual disappointments and critiques. The remarkable circumstance of a bad idea set in motion by a committee pulled back and re-thought as a result of intelligent and civil discussion. It can happen! The sensation of healing, of staying with people for the long haul and moving from shouting across the divide of two microphones to sitting in a circle together. It can happen! The sensation that I’m finally beginning to shed the crusty skins of my accumulated bitterness and angers and move towards forgiveness and acceptance. It can happen!

And so a moment to pause in the fresh air of mid-day. Warm. Quiet. Peaceful. Content. Old by calendar years, but younger than I’ve ever been in many ways, energized to keep grabbing life’s tail and hold on for the ride. Life’s bounty before me on my backyard table and grateful and eager to partake. Much awaiting me this week— my granddaughter Zadie’s 2nd birthday tomorrow and what would have been my father-in-laws 89th, my Dad’s birthday the next day and what would have been his 95th, a visit with my Mom, rehearsal with my Pentatonic’s jazz band, another duet concert with Joshi, the sax player and school, school, school. Miles to go before I sleep and many, many promises to keep. But I’m holding on for the ride and ain’t it grand?!

The Privilege of Pre-check

I approached the woman checking ID’s at Airport Security. She looked at my ticket and started shouting, “Preacher! Preacher!” Well, it was Sunday morning and maybe she had heard about my reputation to stand up on soapboxes, but I soon figured out that she was shouting “Pre-check!” and motioned me over to another line. The person there said, “Don’t take anything out of your bag or pockets, leave your shoes and jacket on and walk through.”

Really? This was a First-World Heaven, the kind of stupid thing that sent me into spirals of ecstatic disbelief. I hate taking off my shoes, am tired of emptying my pockets and taking the computer out of the bag and particularly despise the hands-above-my-head-legs-spread booth. To just put my bag on the belt, walk through the simple doorway, pick it up on the other side and good-to-go— what a sensation! What had I done to earn it? Why was I suddenly considered trustworthy?

Or might it be that such security scanning is as safe as is necessary and the whole shoes off/ computer out/ pockets emptied is simply to keep us all afraid and humiliated and to keep the new scanning machine companies making profits? It really makes no sense whatsoever.

But hey, we all love being in the carpool lane whizzing by others stuck in traffic, enjoy getting waived to the front of the line just because, feel like the world owes us something for all the indignities it heaps upon us and any scrap of privilege is to be happily accepted. Take a look at my monthly paycheck and the deep respect our culture holds for teachers (not!) and you can see why walking through the pre-check security is probably going to be the pinnacle of privilege I’ll enjoy in this lfe. See you at the gate!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Made 'em Laugh

Keep this between us, but I got paid money today for showing kids “Singing in the Rain.”
Of course, I justified it splendidly, putting it in the context of “The Jazz Singer “excerpt we had watched earlier that exposed them to one of the weirdest recorded aberrations of human relationship— the Minstrel Show and blackface. The kids know High School Musical, but like most Americans, are wholly ignorant of all the glorious and goriest histories that led up to it. Such a history— which I am attempting in a mere 45 minutes per week— would have to dip into West African oral cultures, West European literate cultures, the slave trade, the avalanche of consequences of slavery and the flimsy philosophies, theologies, scientific theories desparately trying to hold up institutional ignorance and brutality, the move from the Minstrel Show to Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the impact of emerging technologies, the rise of ragtime and silent movies, Tin Pan Alley, the development of tap dancing, the first talking picture, the manufacture of our collective dreams and mythologies— and that’s just for starters! Behind and alongside of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds is Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and so many more, who laid down the path that led to the Yellow Brick Road.

What’s remarkable is how much of that list (minus the early histories) is in this movie! Here are two hoofers who get their start in vaudeville, move into silent movies and then cross into the new technology of the talking picture— with direct references to The Jazz Singer! The scene in which Don (Gene Kelly) reveals his love for Kathy (Debby Reynolds) is a brilliant exposure of the props behind the dreams— the romantic sunset lighting, the big fan for wind, the mist machine, the enchanting violins— love and romance manufactured, but still we don’t feel it as sham. We hunger for the magic to take us out of our humdrum days and are willing and ready to suspend all disbelief. “Sweep me away!” we implore the screen as we sit in the darkened theater (or Broadway Show) and that’s what the musical is— pure fantasy, lifting us in the air as Fred did with Ginger, sending us to the heavens with a heavenly song, turning the inconvenience of rain into an invitation to dance and sing with joy in our feet and love in our heart. There’s plenty of political incorrections— the sexy-only chorus girls, the background jungle scene, the dumb blonde bombshell (thank goodness, no blackface)— but in the midst of viewing, we’re not interested in deconstruction and critique. Nor should we be.

This film contains not one, but at least four memorable musical moments in the history of American film. The opening Fit as a Fiddle, then Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses Supposes— and of course, Singing in the Rain. Make ‘Em Laugh is my personal favorite, and I nominate Donald O-Connor, along with Danny Kaye, as one of the most brilliant comic dancers/actors. My 8th graders, some entering their adolesence to the soundtrack of Gangsta Rap, were smiling and laughing like innocent 7-year olds— testimony to the staying power of great art. It truly made ‘em laugh.

Next week, Stormy Weather!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ripples to Bosnia

Yesterday, I went to a concert and a woman approached me in the lobby:

“Do you remember me? I took a workshop with you about 20 years ago. Called you and told you I was going to Bosnia the next day to work with war-ravaged children and asked if you had anything I could take over to them.”

“And what did I say?”

“That yes, you were reasonably sure you did. And so I came to the workshop.”

“And did I?”

“Yes, I used the ideas and material immediately and the children loved it. Thank you.”

“And thank you, both for the work and for telling me about it. One rarely knows what people take out of a workshop and where they take it and with whom.”

I’m not much of a poet, but I’ve always liked this little poem I wrote around my 60th birthday:

Pebble in a Pond

20 years old. Confident, cocky, sure that
that boulder I will heave into the mainstream
will make a big splash in the world.

Each decade, the stone
and the river
 got smaller.

At 60, that once-big splash a mere pebble
In a small pond.

But still it makes ripples, tiny rings
that circle outwards
and sometimes reach the shore
of someone’s life about to be changed.

And so yesterday I found out that many years ago, a little ripple reached some children in Bosnia and gave them a few moments of pleasure. Who would have guessed?

"What Is WRONG with You?!!"

Teaching is perhaps one of the most difficult and effective spiritual paths. The one that will test you to the hilt on the whole “love thy neighbor” idea. Of course, most people’s version of school has nothing to do with love, but from my vantage point, it’s at the center of the whole enterprise— or should be. As Dickens so eloquently put it:

“Thank you, Mr Rokesmith. You love children.”

“I should hope everybody does.”

“They ought,” said Mrs. Boffin., “but we all of us don’t do what we ought, do us?”

The school year starts with great hopes and expectations that every child will be lovable instantly. But they’re not. And some will make us crazy with their behavior. If we remember that “behavior is the language of children,” we needn’t take it personally. They’re telling us things like “This subject is so incomprenhensible to me and it’s so confusing that other kids seem to get it that I have to do something here to survive.” Or  “I haven’t had breakfast in three days” or “My parents are fighting” or a thousand other things. It takes a while for us to notice these patterns and how they interrupt our perfect lessons and we start to get exasperated and angry and either alone in our thoughts or checking it out with fellow teachers or out loud to the child him or herself, we say, “What is wrong with you?!!” with the full force of frustration and judgment.

Though the tone is wrong above, the question is a good one. If the answer has a scientific name, like Dyslexia or Autism or Asperger’s, it changes everything. Judgement turns to understanding turns to compassion. If the answer is a humane one— like a pet or grandparent dying or difficult issues at home— we also lean in further to affection and loving gestures. It is our ignorance—and sometimes the child’s as well— as to what’s going on that keeps the patterns of exasperation and  harsh judgment going, that puts the italics in “wrong” and the exclamation points after the question mark.

As with children, so with everyone. How many of the people who piss us off and drive us crazy might be seen in whole different light if we took the time to ask, “Tell me your story.”? Or if their behavior had a commonly accepted diagnosis like “obsessive compulsive.” Suddenly we’re an inch more understanding when they keep moving everything we put down somewhere else.

If we’re ever going to move this “love your neighbor” thing beyond a convenient soundbyte platitude and make it real, that’s the kind of work we’ll have to do. And while the stories can evoke compassion, they can’t be used as mere excuses in a victim mentality kind of way. We are all responsible for moving beyond our stories to improve our behavior and take responsibility for our actions and the way they affect others.

To review:

• Step one is noticing and asking the question.

• Step two is asking again after removing the italics and exclamation points.

• Step three is listening and re-framing once you know more. Leaning into understanding and compassion.

Where things get really thorny is when you’re trying to love your neighbor while they’re dumping their trash in your yard or throwing loud parties with live heavy metal bands at 2 in the morning. And they’re not interested in hearing your story about why you might find that upsetting. The people I’ve had the most trouble loving are those who have intentionally sought to harm me. That’s a whole different ball game.

But I’ve been told that I have “too-many-ideas-in-one-blog-Syndrome” so I’ll leave it at that.