Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On the Edge

It’s time for the five-year strategic plan at my school. The staff wrote down their personal Post-it reflections about why they teach in general and why they teach in our particular school. Reading the collage of testimonies, I noticed none said “Money” or “Status” or “Career Advancement.” There was a lot of passion involved, for children, for a particular subject, for the craft of teaching. As it should be.

In an effort to reach to the core of our collective identity, small groups grappled with the question of why our particular school exists. Again, the results were impressive— “sending the children as emissaries into a more harmonious, sustainable, peaceful and loving future, helping kids find their particular genius, teaching them self-awareness, other-awareness, independence and interdependence. Giving them the needed tools to think, to imagine, to feel, to care.” In my group, we edged toward the geography of the school as a place on the frontier, on the borders between multiple worlds, on the edge of mainstream thinking.

We are in the midst of building a new Community Center and in one Powerpoint presentation, there was a slide that read “Moving to the Center.” It was meant literally, but some of us felt it metaphorically. The poet e.e. cummings once quipped, “To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight.” That’s as true for institutions as it is for individuals and there are a lot of forces at work out there trying to homogenize and smooth out the rough and gritty characters that authentic schools have grown over the years. Some of it is mindless, some well-meaning, some trying to align “best practices,” but all of it is dangerous. The problem with conformity of any kind is that a puts a stop to thought. It straightjackets the imagination. It closes down the feeling heart.

I’ve lived on the edge most of my life and find it a glorious place to be. Sometimes lonely, often difficult, but always pulsing with something that feels real, that feels authentic, that feels alive. Why wouldn’t everyone want to be there?

If anything approaching a grain of insight has sprouted in this aging brain, I think the answer has something to do with the sheer difficulty, effort and even terror of pitching your tent near the cliff’s edge. Our school mission statement aims to “cultivate the intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise of each child,” but it is not easy task to cultivate real thinking, a working imagination and an open, caring heart.

Take thinking. It is hard to form a genuine thought that is not simply echoing what the teacher, preacher or Fox news tells us. It takes lots and lots of reading, writing and occasionally arithmetic joined with a relentless curiosity and probing “Why? How? What? How much? As for imagination, it is easy to dream up interesting ideas and images, but it takes a Herculean effort to put feet on one’s winged vision, be it a piece of art, a piece of music or a social program. And finally, it is all well and good to open one’s heart to love and joy and humor and good fellowship, but that mean’s you’re also vulnerable to loss and grief and pain and despair. That’s scary.

Away from the edge, people cover their thinking with comfortable soundbytes, give over their imagination to the entertainment industry and make sure their heart is well-armored. They become consumers of life, fans of the stars, a hand that holds the remote to keep themselves remote and changes the channel when things get uncomfortable. And who can blame them? It’s hard to think. It takes great effort to imagine. It hurts to feel.

But I still recommend it. Stay close to the edge. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Inverted Rube Goldberg (IRG) Approach to Assessment

I received a flyer yesterday about an Assessment in Arts Education Conference coming up in Taiwan. Reading over the speaker’s proposed sessions, I came upon this:

“Assessment is a key issue in music education and is particularly perplexing in relation to evaluating creativity assessment in music. There are different views on what counts as ‘creativity’ in music… this has made it difficult to construct assessment rating processes that translate contemporary assessment theory into viable classroom practices, particularly when they are required to fit different contexts and purposes whilst maintaining internal consistency and coherence.  The continuing problem is the lack of understanding of formative assessment and the dominance of the summative assessment regime in schools. From this and other research, we see that in order to embed creativity assessments that make clear distinctions between product-process and formative- summative practices, we need to examine conceptions of current assessment practices with a view to developing common criteria, and an empirical framework for use in assessing this aspect of pupil learning. We also need to develop and test criteria that assess the creativity in product outcomes, as well as criteria that assess the process of creativity leading to these outcomes. With reference to research evidence, and the distinctiveness of Bourdieu’s sociology and the role of cultural capital, I will make the case for the sociocultural construction of a paradigm of creativity assessment in music that will lead naturally to self-regulated creativity and creative learning in music.”

Anybody need some extra-strength Tylenol? I’m not going to be nice here. What the hell is this crap? Who does the speaker think she’s talking to with these run-on sentences and $100 phrases like “summative assessment regime,” “product outcomes,” “cultural capital,” and “sociocultural construction of a paradigm of creativity assessment?” Have she taught a three-year old recently?

This invasion of pseudo-sociology and pseudo-science into the artistic realm of the human imagination is death to arts education. Nothing will kill a child’s natural creativity more quickly than adults observing with i-Pads poised with their “paradigm of creativity assessment” ready to pounce upon each sign of an imaginative moment with their assessment tools, eager to label, sort, judge, dissect, grade and fit into their pre-formatted “empirical frameworks.” What exactly are they trying to prove? Have they so little faith in the natural curiosity and prodigious imagination of young children that they have to straightjacket their behavior into some sardine-tin rubric? And all in the name of “creativity?”

The whole show reveals a cynical profound distrust of our capacity to respond to novel situations with intelligence and imagination, a fantasy that we can manufacture creativity in our micro-managed laboratory and prove with data that we have achieved our outcome. As if creativity a “thing” that we put on the check-list and go to sleep at night feeling better that we achieved our quota for the day. As if it’s a quality that stands alone as opposed to a team player with craft, technique, coherent structure and deep analysis. As if it were something we can assemble like a model airplane rather than simply a necessary and pleasurable way to live in this world.

This whole academic mindset is like those Rube Goldberg machines, those cartoons or devices designed to perform a very simple task in a very complex fashion. Minus the fun and creativity. Those machines are crazy contraptions that stretch the borders of our usual pedestrian thinking and thousands of dollars and hours can be spent for the simple pleasure of creating something absolutely insane. (For a taste of this, go see “This Too Shall Pass” on Youtube). These convoluted assessment models are deadly serious and all those hours spent produce absolutely nothing of value except increasing the profits of the Tylenol manufacturers.

I’m thinking I should apply to the Conference as a counter-keynote speaker. Here’s the summary of my assessment method:

“Watch the children.”

I give children countless opportunities to improvise, compose or choreograph responses to new situations, with unshakeable faith in their ability to come up with something. I watch them and note their ideas, their collaborative process, their habits of practice. After they perform, we discuss what happened as a group. They give a self-evaluation, the group gives feedback and in the process, all develop a firmer aesthetic criteria and ideas of how to edit, add, change, refine their improvisation, composition or choreography. My approach is an inverted Rube Goldberg image (should I make that a market soundbyte? the IRG approach?)— how to take the complex, non-capturable, elusive process of creativity and assess it with a simple process and simple language. One of my favorite criteria when it comes to composition is Duke Ellington’s own IRG idea:

“If it sounds good, it is good.”

So a word to my fellow teachers, University professors, administrators, policy makers, educational thinkers. Life is too short to even read sentences like the opening paragraph, never mind construct elaborate mazes to trap and quantify the creative impulse. Spend that time and energy learning how to do good work with children, leave some room for amazement at the working of their pre-formal mind and have yourself a little fun making stuff up with them. That’s enough.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ten-Minute Sage on the Stage

A good idea poorly understood sometimes causes more damage than a bad idea well done. In the alternative education field I’ve been grazing in for some 40 years, there has been an ongoing visceral reaction to and disdain for the “sage on the stage” kind of education. That format, still alive and well in many universities nationwide, features the brilliant lecturer up on the podium with the adoring students frantically taking notes, hoping to catch even a small percentage of the nuggets of wisdom tossed their way. Knowledge is disembodied and the teacher-student relationship is unnecessary, and indeed, impossible in lecture halls filled with a few hundred students.

Enter the more democratic, hands-on, student-centered, experiential-based “guide on the side” model, with the teacher posing questions and problems for the students to solve and guiding them toward further questioning and their own solutions. The teacher’s job here is not to share what he or she knows, but to lead the students to the edge of their own discovery. Relationships between teacher and student, student and student, count high in this model and the children’s confidence in their own intelligence is spotlighted over the teacher’s brilliance.

(There also is a third model awaiting its catch phrase and articulate spokesperson—I keep trying but haven’t yet found the perfect combination of words. That is the “sing in the ring” model where the teacher is exploring with the students, participating in the active making of music (in my case) and combining both models above as the situation calls for it. But this is a matter for another posting.)

When push comes to shove, I lean heavily toward the discovery model, but worry about what gets tossed out with the bathwater when the lecture mode is considered obsolete. Fact is, I love to go to lectures and hear interesting people speak and never feel disappointed that they didn’t make us get into little groups and problem-solve. I’m a long time patron of the City Arts and Lecture Series in San Francisco, recently heard Dan Pink speak at the Jewish Community Center Series and go soon to hear Dave Barry. And apparently I have company. The houses are almost always full as people pay money and take time to sit and listen to someone talk on a stage.

Before radio, film and TV at the turn of the century, such lectures were part and parcel of our culture. People spoke at clubs, libraries, Universities, rented halls and even soapboxes in the local park. People traded in thoughts and ideas in diverse subjects ranging from science to art to politics to gardening. Early radio and even TV continued somewhat with the lecture format. But given a choice between chewing on the ramifications of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and watching the Keystone Cops hit each other over the head and run down the street in chase scenes with ragtime music, entertainment gained some ground over intellectual rumination. And today, the image, mostly laced with sex and violence, reigns supreme over public discourse and is the new coin of the realm.

And yet, the TED Video series, along with the live events described above, is enormously popular and mostly consist of people speaking for 20 minutes. A good speaker with a good idea still attracts us and holds our attention. Yes, extra credit if they’re funny and dynamic and good-looking, but it’s not required. I find that fascinating.

I gave my own TEDx talk today (TEDx is smaller audience and half the time) and though nervous about seeing the image of my receding TV-image glamour, I believe I spoke from the heart about what I know and what I believe and what I value and worked hard to make the connection with the audience, believing that they cared about the same things— in this case, a music education worthy of their children. No one rushed the stage as if I had scored the winning touchdown or threw money at my rock-star feet, but I received a few verbal appreciations at the end and more importantly, there now is a document that can travel further than my own physical body to join the chorus of concern that we’re failing our children when we don’t give them the opportunity for artistic expression.

So having officially joined the world of noble lecturers and had my 10 minutes as the Sage on the Stage, I’m ready to sit on the couch and watch a Marx Brothers movie.
I believe I earned it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Let Them Have Music!

Yesterday's posting mentioned my upcoming TEDx talk this Saturday. Below is a draft of my thoughts. Any readers out there who want to give me advice or encouragement, write to 

Often when I begin a music workshop with university students or classroom teachers, I ask “Who here is a musician? Who here is musical? Who hear loves to listen to music?” Invariably, a few raise their hands for the first question, some more tentatively put their hands up for the second (usually around 25%) and everybody raises their hands high for the last. The first is understandable— not all are willing or have the opportunity to devote the necessary time to master the difficult language of music. The last is predictable and simple proof that music is as essential to our humanity as bread. But the part that concerns me is the 75% who think they’re not musical. Why is that?  Often because  nobody in their schooling (including some music teachers!) took them by their hand and led them through the door of their own musicality. At my school and at every age from 3 years old to 8th grade, all the children raise their hands for all three questions. 

So my life’s work is to raise the percentage of our musical population and convince schools and teachers and administrators and parents that this is important and necessary. And if they’ve never had music in their schooling or never had a music education that was truly musical, this is a challenge.

My first job is to expand the definition of music from learning to play a particular instruments and read notes to a way of experiencing the music in every aspect of our life, finding the music in language, in math, in our own bodies, with simple materials close at hand, no assembly required. I’m lucky to have stumbled into an approach to music education developed by Carl Orff, the Orff Schulwerk, that does precisely that.

The second is to make real Howard Gardner’s assertion that music is an intelligence we all equally possess as a potential, not an inborn talent reserved for the special few. At my school, every child has music almost every day for the full eleven years, from 3 years old to 8th grade and they’ve proven that Gardner was right— music is an intelligence that can be nurtured and cultivated like any other. Here’s a testimony from one of the students who came late to our school in 6th grade:

“I learned to play jazz which is really cool because I thought I couldn’t play anything. I’ve  always thought that you can’t learn music, but being in your class really changed my mind.”

So when I say that music is the birthright of all and that school is one place we can gift children with it, I mean all children at every age in every school and nothing less. In every class I teach, the children show me why music in schools is essential—not one of them needs to be convinced. But for all of you sitting on these imaginary school boards who haven’t experienced this for yourselves, it’s harder to understand why we should care so much about this. So let’s look at the big picture.

I’ve heard it said that no kid in jail has ever been in a band. That’s another way to say that a kid who joins a gang is telling us, “You have not given me what I need so I have to find it myself. I’ll belong to a gang, apprentice myself to violence, show my power with guns or knives, be known through the newspaper headline.” The things that drive kids to gangs and violence are the same basic human needs and drives that we all share put into the wrong container. The band—and here I mean any band— the jazz band, the string orchestra, the Orff ensemble, the dance group— is the right container for those energies.

And this is not conjecture. Someone like José Abreu en Venezuela armed youth-at-risk with violins in his work known as El Sistema and saved some 400,000 lives from going down the dark path, bringing beauty and belonging into their lives.  It works. Big time. Here’s a list of five deep needs a good music program can feed and nourish:

• DISCIPLINE: The old joke “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice” is true. We all have an urge for mastery and disciplined practice is the only road to success. Children who practice have a sense of being connected to something worthy where they can note their growth and progress, enjoy a sense of achievement, wake up each morning with a purpose and something that connects the dots of each day. The musician is always working on something, on their way somewhere and that keeps them fresh and vital.

• POWER: There is nothing worse than feeling powerless— think of your rage when you push a button on the computer and nothing happens. Children especially feel helpless and look for power in all sorts of places—superheroes, temper tantrums, video games. Music puts the right kind of power in their hands, the power to shape a phrase and express an emotion and communicate with others. To learn how to get vibrato from a string or the right touch for each hand in the Mozart sonata or how to growl or bend a blues note on the horn gives children a sense of powerful control and puts in literally in their hands.

• BELONGING: We are social creatures and go to great lengths to belong to groups, to feel part of a group. At its best, we also want to feel that we are of value to the group, are known and celebrated in the group and can contribute something worthwhile. Well, that’s music. Whether you’re playing first violin or last triangle, your note is necessary to the overall effect and you must do the work to get the note in the right place at the right pitch with the right feeling. Then you connect with something larger than yourself, that beautiful feeling of blending into the big choral sound or losing yourself in the thundering of drums. There are so many levels to this belonging. To the ensemble, to the instrument group inside of the ensemble, to the musical style, to the music itself, to the community refreshed by the performance.

• MEANING: There are other things that offer discipline, power and belonging. Sports, for example. But there are two more things that music gives us that nothing else quite does in the same way. The first is another basic human need as old as our evolved brain. The brain’s number one job is to perceive pattern and make sense out of apparently random information, all the way from “how do I get food in this cafeteria?” to “What is the meaning of life?” One reason why we crave music is that it’s one of humanity’s finest expressions of meaning. We sit in the concert hall, a note sounds that announces it’s time to leave clock time and the world of randomness and release ourselves to a journey in which each note is connected to every other in a coherent pattern. It proceeds in its own inexorable logic  reaches a conclusion and sets us back down to clock time. We’re not only refreshed by the way music’s vibrations affects our nervous system, our muscles, our brain waves, our breathing rhythms, but by the soothing effect of being in a world, however briefly, where everything makes sense. Here’s how a character in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain talks about it:

"Music held more for him that just pleasure. There was meat to it. The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of creation. What the music said was there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift but have a shape, an aim.”

BEAUTY: And finally, beauty. Beauty doesn’t scan well in the school curriculum and testing talk, but we all—children and adults alike— hunger for it . Here’s a quote from Les Mis— the book!

“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than bouquets.”

…the bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.” 

Come with me when I play piano for my Mom at her Old Age home and you’ll see the wheelchairs racing to the piano like wildlife flocking to the waterhole in a drought to drink from the fount of music. Come sing with me to my one-year old grandchild to see how the beautiful tones soothe her and rock her to sleep. Come watch the children in my music class so joyfully playing, singing and dancing. Imagine your own children given this gift of belonging, discipline, self-power, meaning and the lifelong habit of pursuing beauty. Listen to the testimony of these two wise 7th graders:

"Music is very important to me. Why? Because it can fill in your blanks. It's flexible the way you are. You can always find music that fits your mood. You know that saying "misery loves company?" Well, music is a perfect proof of that. It makes you feel that there is someone else out there who feels the same way you do. It shares your pain and builds your spirits. It fills those bare silences. Music is like colorful emotion that spreads over the room whenever it is played. Everyone should be allowed or able to feel that color, that emotion as it flows through them. "      - Morgan Cundiff

“Music isn’t just notes written on paper or different frequencies. Music isn’t a “thing” at all. Music is a way of life. You can live through music, you can feed on it, you can find relief in it. I use music as a passage and the passage can go wherever I want it to. Jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, they're all different passageways of music. Music brings you to a new dimension. Perhaps it’s an Ab major dimension or a Techno dimension. Whatever that dimension is, it’s the one you want.”  - Jackson Vanfleet-Brown

“It’s the one you want.” Every day of my teaching life tells me it is indeed what the children want. It’s what they deeply need. My advice to you, to your children’s schools, to schools everywhere, is very simple, “Let’s give it to them.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Belated Christmas Gift

The title is not about this recent Christmas, but one two years ago, when I put out a request to friends and acquaintances to nominate me to give a TED Talk. Following Robert Frost’s famous quote (“I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the world”), my six-word bio reads: “Called World to quarrel. No answer.” I thought—and think— I had a worthy complaint that World should hear: “Why don’t all children have an effective, happy and loving music education?” But as I said, all my preaching was to choirs and small ones at that. I wanted to up the ante and TED seemed the perfect vehicle.

It turns out that many people did indeed send a message to TED, but he didn’t pick up. No surprise— the story of my life, always one brick short of a media-exposure barbecue. But in some “be careful what you wish for” kind of drama, it turns out I’m giving a mini-TED talk this Saturday in L.A. It’s called TEDx, which doesn’t mean the same as the movie rating, but rather a shorter time (9 minutes instead of 20) and not up there with the big guns on the TED Channel (though perhaps available in some Youtube format— I’ll keep you posted).

When I first told a friend I wanted to speak on TED, he laughed ruefully and said, “Do you realize you would only have twenty minutes to speak? !!” He knew me well. But now with nine minutes, twenty seems like a luxury. These blogs have helped me get to the point faster and with fewer turns down the side roads, but still— nine minutes to condense a life’s work of thinking about the thousand reasons why music should be in the schools? That’s just cruel.

The composer Schoenberg once said “the most important tool for the composer is the eraser” and I think that’s true for every artist. So I’ve whittled my talk down to four pages and five points, but suspect it’s still four minutes too long. Aargh!

Tomorrow I will post it for any reader who has good advice for me, but hurry— the talk is on Saturday morning. Meanwhile, I’m going to write a thank you note to Santa. A short one.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sacred Portals of the Future

What a day! The equivalent of a grand slam in baseball! Martin Luther King was honored, Barack Obama was inauguarated for his second term and the new SF Jazz Building opened its doors with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, brass bands, speeches and general good spirit— all on the same day!

At the SF Jazz ceremony, John Santos gave a stirring speech about the working class roots of jazz, a good reminder as this shiny new building takes its place amongst the traditionally elite culture of Opera and Symphony and Conservatory in a neighborhood with restaurants priced on the higher end. He then sang an invocation to Eleguá, the Yoruban Orisha-deity of openings and closings, doorways, portals and crossroads. Eleguá is the West African/ Caribbean version of the Greek Hermes, the Roman Janus and host of other such gods in various cultures worldwide. He is depicted sometimes as a child and is attracted to children’s toys and candy.

So while I’m mixing cultural references, above is the Temple of the Three Windows in the Sacred plaza of Machu Picchu, dedicated to the Inti, the Sun God. It’s a good image for today’s historic sacred portals to the future— the one that Martin Luther King threw open wide so we could see the same mountaintop of justice he saw, the one that Barack Obama is hopefully re-dedicating himself to with renewed fervor, less naivete and stronger backbone and the window into the next step in the story of jazz in the U.S. of A.

The Incas were deeply steeped in hierarchy. If fact, Inca technically is the word for the ruler come to earth as divine representative of the Sun God Inti. It was an inherited position and when one such king died, he was mummified and his power remained intact in that form while the next was crowned. Anyone who knows even a little of jazz’s colorful history knows that it began in poverty, in cotton fields and ghetto ‘hoods and if you rose to be the Empress of the Blues or Mr. Duke Ellington or Mr. Count Basie or Lady Day, it was not from inherited privilege, but talent married with dedication and a prodigious technique and imagination. And a whole lotta soul. And at the ceremony, giant photos of the above musicians and more shone out from the building across the streets, reminding us that their sacred power is still helping to direct the show long after they’re gone.

So this is the New Ruling Class, American style. Martin Luther King, a poor country preacher, became the remembered conscience and spiritual beacon for a whole country. “By what sends the white kids, I ain’t sent, I know I can’t be President” wrote Langston Hughes a while back, but Barack Obama proved him eventually wrong— twice. And after a century of being the underdog in mainstream culture, jazz has finally risen to the top. It is the new nobility of American culture. In fact, perhaps too much so for some, not prepared for the level of sophistication by a culture with jazz still on the low end on the radio dial and with music programs dropping all over the nation.

And that brings me back to Eleguá and the children. The speeches acknowledged the fine work SF Jazz has done with the High School All-Stars and the Jazz in the Middle School program, but conspicuously absent are the elementary school children. All of them. Not just the ones who already study sax or are ready to dedicate their life to this music. Just the ones who want to get a taste of what it feels like to play jazz at their level. I’ve been pounding at the door the last 10 years or so, shouting, “I’m your guy! You need me!” and it’s starting to slowly open. (Come to my post-Family Jazz workshop on April 13th). I say this in all humility— I simply haven’t met someone who has worked so extensively to bring hands-on jazz to three-year olds, eight year-olds and 8th graders in a way that makes sense to them. I happen to think it’s a next important step and just hope I’m still around when others start to agree.

Meanwhile, I’m well-aware that this posting breaks every rule of coherent writing with its patchwork themes, so might as well throw in the final one. I mixed a baseball grand slam with the Three Sacred Windows of the Incas, further confusing matters with references to  4 runs and 3 windows. So what’s the 4th? Yesterday’s 49’ers football game!! (Nice one, Doug! From baseball’s home run to football touchdowns. Huh?)

There! Now I’ve thoroughly earned the F- in essay writing while illuminating ancient history, contemporary culture and hopes for the future. Remember all of this next time you think of January 21, 2013.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Go Niners?

I’m continuing my M.O. of being a fair-weather sports fan. First the Giants in the World Series and now the Niners. Turned on the TV in the 2nd quarter with the score 17 to 7 and things looked promising when the 49’ers scored within minutes of my watching. Coincidence? I think not! I’m sure that my screaming at the T.V. and my little physical twitches aiming the ball at the right spot were entirely responsible for their victory.

It was a Shakespearean game, overflowing with high drama moments. But instead of writing a sonnet, I tried to capture it in a haiku, complete with the 5-7-5 syllabic structure:

Football Haiku
Missed field goal hits post
Fumble at the one… and yet,
Niners! Super Bowl!!

If I say it was an offensive game, sports fans will know it’s not an insult, but an analysis. But the unsung hero’s were the 49’ers defense holding Atlanta at bay at the 10-yard line. Way to go, fellas!

Since it was the first game I’ve watched all season, I didn’t have the pleasure of identifying with the players. But I was struck by the quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s  little knee-lift just before the hike and his occasional jog up to scrimmage shouting to his linemen. Also some pretty intense tattoos— and he had a lot of company there.

So I’m stoked! Could it be Giants and 49’ers in one (kind of) year? I even wrote another poem.

Joining the Crowd
It takes so little imagination
to join the throngs and shout,
“Go Niners!!!

And yet,
I so happily do so.


But in the midst of the excitement, I wonder how Martin Luther King would have liked the game. I’m preparing for my first TED talk (hooray! more on that later) about the importance of arts education and note that both sports and arts offer some of the same things to kids— discipline, a sense of belonging to a team, of working toward a common goal, of feeling personal power through focused achievement and more. But their final purpose is distinct enough to note. You could play a fantastic game, as Atlanta surely did, and leave the stadium downhearted. As did not only the players, but all the Atlanta fans. But if the SF Symphony and Atlanta Symphony both played a rousing version of Beethoven’s 5th on the same night or even in the same concert hall, they all would leave uplifted. And the audience members too. That’s a difference worth noting.

Of course, I jumped up and down and joined the Facebook “Go Niners!” chorus and generally felt like I achieved something worthwhile by picking San Francisco as my home city. But truth be told, I felt compassion for the Atlanta folks— and later the New England folks (including my son-in-law Ronnie and grandson Alijah). Why does my exultation have to be at the expense of their disappointment? Well, that’s the way the game works and luckily there are other games in town— like the symphony and jazz clubs and gamelans and taiko groups and Orff classes. Thank goodness for that.

Meanwhile, I guess I should it say it one more time, but this time in deference to my brothers and sisters in Atlanta and Boston— “Go Niners.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Content of Their Character

“ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

                                                                                       - Martin Luther King Jr.

Sometimes dreams come true. Today at The San Francisco School, our students fulfilled Dr. King’s prophecy. I conducted a little experiment and they came through with flying colors. Here’s how it went:

I showed the above photo to 100 1st through 5th grade kids and asked them if they had any questions. Here is a sample list:

1)    Who are they?
2)    Where are they?
3)    What are they eating?
4)    Are they having a date?
5)    Is it something romantic?Are they in love?
6)    Is it a wedding?
7)    Is it a camping wedding?
8)    Why is there a ping-pong table?
9)    Is the woman someone who went to our school?
10) Is the man Martin Luther King Jr.’s son?

I then showed a slide of Martin Luther King with the quote above and complemented the kids on their interesting questions, that had everything to do with their curiosity about these two people and the situation and setting and nothing about the fact that the couple in question had two different skin colors. (I did answer their questions as well— for those curious: 1) My daughter Kerala. and her now husband, Ronnie. 2) Up in the Trinitiy Alps. 3) Lasagna. 4) Not exactly. 5) Yes. 6) Yes. 7) Kind of. 8) One of the many things guests could do in the three days there. And then I told them the story about how I played ping-pong with Ronnie and how I’d give permission for him to marry Kerala if he beat me. He did. 9) Yes. 10) No. )

Then I told them, “Fifty years ago, most kids in the U.S. would not come up with these questions. 100 years ago, the law would have arrested my daughter and her husband, for such marriages were illegal. And if all of us lived in those times, we too would probably be stuck in these bad ideas that were all around us. But bad ideas can get smaller in time and you kids just proved how you were more interested in who they were and whether they loved each other and why they had ping-pong at their wedding than in wondering why two people with different skin colors would marry each other. Hooray for you! Hooray for bad ideas getting smaller and treating people decently getting bigger!”

“First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes Kerala with the baby carriage.” was my child-sized lead-up to the next slide of granddaughter Zadie. “Who would like to play with Zadie?” 100 enthusiastic hands. “Babysit her?” Again. “For free?” Still enough that I hope my daughter is reading this and will move back to San Francisco from D.C.!

“Well, fifty years ago, you might not want to play with her because the grown-ups around you— your parents, your teachers, your mayors, your ministers— might brainwash you into thinking that was wrong. Or you might secretly want to play with her, but be worried that you’d get in trouble. And in some places, you would! There’s those big bad ideas again and so sad! All those people missing great fun and getting to know great people! But luckily, in our time and in our place here at our school, no one thinks twice about whether it would be fun or not. They’d just try out playing with her and find out!”

“So, kids, I want to show you how bad things can get better and how proud Martin Luther King would be of you and us and our new day. But we can’t relax yet. Because there are still many places and many people today who wouldn’t ask those interesting questions you asked because they haven’t left the bad ideas behind yet. And that my little granddaughter Zadie will probably come home from school someday asking her parents why someone called her an ugly name and what does it mean, anyway? And they will sigh and have to explain to her about the way things were here in this country and how they’re not gone yet.”

“So that’s why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day every year. My friends and I did the best we could to make those bad ideas smaller, but you’ll have to do the rest. And I hope you make them disappear so that Zadie’s children or grandchildren will hear about how things were and think, “What was wrong with those people? That was stupid!”

This was the perfect moment to stand up and sing We Shall Overcome. 100 children linked arm-in-arm singing with such passion and beauty. The adult tear ducts opened wide and some of the kids’ did too. And with the photo of Kerala, Ronnie and Zadie appearing as we modulated to a higher key for the final chorus, it was all I could do to keep playing and not melt into a puddle. Happy MLK Day!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Make It Sparkle!

Yet another day when I found myself astounded to think, “I get paid for this?” Here I was with the three-year olds and a birthday-cake stack of nested hand drums with rainbow mallets radiating out. They walked in the room and exclaimed, “It looks like the sun!” and off we went, singing and dancing, “Sally go ‘round the sun” with its contrasting “Boom boom!!” at the end inviting us to sit down. Anyone who knows three-year olds knows they are all impulse, eager to touch, taste and try out whatever is set before them. So it’s a little cruel to suggest— no, insist—no, threaten them (kindly and with a smile) with the possibility that they won’t ever play the drum today if they pick up a mallet before I invite them.

A quick go-around clapping the rhythms of their names for my own review (this was only my second class with them, after all) and then one by one, they lifted off the top drum and squealed in delight when they saw another drum below, stacked like those famous Russian dolls. As each picked up their drum, we softly played their names on it— and they sounded good!

From there, it’s marching and galloping and jumping and tiptoeing and twirling with drums in hand trying (or not) to make some coherent connections between the rhythms in the feet and those in the hands. I’m playing some piano to help glue it all together and they’re in seventh heaven. And then I invite their fantasy life to unfold as they walk with drum umbrellas over their head or drive around with drum steering wheels or wear drum masks over their faces as they dance or eat from their drum plates. They push the drums around the floor with their mallets, dance around them and jump over them and most fun of all, sit inside them and row their boats around. That’s when I think of all the folks sitting at their computers in terminals making graphs of profit margins and am so happy that I get to row around the floor in a big hand drum and call it work.

As fine as that was, there was more. They rowed up to my feet and one by one, we had a little drum conversation. I played something and then they played something back. When it got to one little girl, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “Play something sparklely, because I feel really sparklely today!” Besides the sheer delight of such an exuberant proclamation, it was probably the most difficult musical challenge I’ve had in a while—just how do you play something sparkeley with a mallet on a hand-drum? I did my best, she answered back and off we went to lunch, all of us feeling a bit more sparklely spending 30 minutes with hand drums and the fireworks of the human imagination.

I can’t wait to go back to work tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The New Dentistry

I’m happy to report I walked through the preschool yard today with cries of “Dougie!!!”
Mr. Fading Rock Star is making a comeback! But less happy about the call from my dentist I got just after my preschool music class. “Looks like you need an emergency root canal. In two hours.”

So off I fled and went to an endodontist (out of my dentist’s field). As I settled back, the hygienist asked me if I’d like to watch a movie during the procedure. Really? That’s a first. I was trying to imagine concentrating on Schindler’s List with the drill bit going and decided it would be just a little too weird. Then she asked if I wanted a massage. Really?!! She pushed a button and my dental chair started punching me in the back. Another first. And I am not making this up.

So why stop there? Why not headphones with a selection of books on tape or a Chinese foot massage or maybe a mariachi band? I mean, the possibilities are endless. I could imagine a ukelele lesson, a cooking demonstration or Spanish vocabulary class describing each step of the dental procedure. “Como se dice… OUCH!!!!!!!!”

Let’s face it— the borders between discrete subjects and activities are dropping everywhere. If an i-Phone can take photos, check e-mail and download recipes, why can’t we have a multi-dimensional dental experience? Preferably in a hot tub. In Hawaii. With maragaritas in-between drillings. And hula girls.

At least that’s what I’m hallucinating while coming down from major doses of extra-strength Tylenol. Oh well. At least I have the preschoolers to cheer me up tomorrow.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eating My Words

“I’ve had to eat many of my own words and I’ve found it a nourishing diet.” –Winston Churchill

I owe the Internet an apology. Years back, when the first enthusiasts treated it like the arrival of the Messiah, I was convinced it would spell the further decline and fall of Western Civilization, that the removal of the “expert’s” editorial filters would wreak havoc with reliable information and that people’s already over-mediated lives would move yet further away from a wholesome walk in the woods. I wasn’t wholly wrong about my various fears. But there have been many perks none of us could have anticipated and in Daniel Pink’s talk tonight about his new book To Sell Is Human, he revealed one of those unexpected shifts.

Lots to say about the talk, which was entertaining, informative and intriguing. He began with acknowledging our aversion to sales, our negative view of the salesman as pushy, overbearing, slick, smarmy and host of other unflattering adjectives. All of which came from the previous paradigm of sales, where the salesman held all the cards in the deck of information and the buyer was at his mercy. Now the tables have turned and in no small part because of the instant access to information on the Internet that puts the information in the buyer’s hands. Not only the kind of ongoing consumer’s reports reviewing everything from Air B n B’s to professor’s college classes, but the opportunity to instantly expose scams. Today’s Music Man can fool one town with his “Think Method” but after that, the word will get out.

I had just given a talk on how the printing press helped defuse the power of the priests some six hundred years ago. With literacy limited to the church officials, they held the power as the interpreters of God to man. When books were printed rapidly rather than handscribed by monks, the Bible became more easily accessible. It was a short step from there to the creation of schools to teach reading— still mostly for the elite— and another long step to arrive at the idea of public schooling for all. Mass literacy  allowed for a more equitable distribution of information and fit the democratic ideal of the informed citizen ready and able to participate in the political decision-making process.

In short, power rests in the hands of those who control the information and the rise of mass literacy, of schools and bookstores and libraries, allowed for a redistribution of power. Those who could decipher the word and had access to the word and the means to print and market the word held the power. Remember that it used to be a crime to teach an enslaved person to read and with good reason— once someone like Frederick Douglass had access to the power of the written word, look how eloquent he became in the cause of freedom.

Information control then shifted first to radio and then to films, T.V. videos. No one needed to go to school to learn how to listen to the spoken word or watch images. But someone was in charge of choosing the images, particularly on the nightly news and network T.V. and that power could shape and control people's thinking. (John McChesney’s book “RICH MEDIA, POOR DEMOCRACY” is a fascinating look at the struggle for control of the airwaves.) Of course, that story is not done, as Fox News continues to give the illusion of showing the world as it is rather than the pieces of the world they choose to select. As indeed, all news channels must (but few with such a narrow lens).

But the Internet has truly blown that all open. Now all the various technologies— the written word, the spoken word, the still image, the moving image— all deliver an avalanche of information at mere button clicks, uncensored by a presiding agency with its own particular agenda. And that changes the whole dynamic. We're too close to it to understand completely how, but from selling cars to political campaigns to how we get the news, it's a whole new world out there. And at least part of it gives the average person both the responsibility to be more roundly informed and the possibility of more personal power. 

Much more to say, but I have to finish eating my own words. Truth be told, they don’t taste so bad.

PS I didn’t buy Daniel Pink’s book at the talk.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Who Fed the Chickens?

Who fed the chickens?
Who stacked the hay?
Who milked the cow?
On this fine day.   

    Ella Jenkins song

It’s Sunday and I’m trying to honor it by listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor while I sit at the old computer. Make a little church of the work room and imagine that I’m beginning a day of rest where I can reflect on the glories of creation. “Imagine” is the key word here. Instead of exulting with the gospel choir or sharing the profound silence of the Zen Center, I’m sentenced to a morning at the screen trying to catch up on business.

It has been a full, rich and hard-working week. I’m back at school full time teaching kids from 3 years old to 14 years old and am relieved to discover that it still fits. Each class was a pleasure, each child was a pleasure and a few— like the twenty 4th graders learning a new swingin’ tune I arranged in a mere 20 minutes—were over-the-top fantastic. At the end of the day, I still had enough energy to visit my Mom and play piano and even go out to a meeting one night and a party another. After seven months marching to my own drummer, I was nervous about being tied to a demanding schedule working with the little beings half-a-century and more younger than me. But it all felt good and right and they seemed happy to be with me and what more can you ask for?

While climbing Machu Picchu, I had a moment when I set a retirement date for myself, perhaps subconsciously equating the arduous climb to the summit with my long 38-year career. There may be wisdom in consciously choosing such a moment, but now that I’m back with the kids, it feels a little contrived, like setting the time for a C-section birth. I think I’ll just wait until nature speaks to me, the moment when the waters metaphorically break and the contractions announcing a post SF School life begin.

But for now, it’s Sunday and when I should be resting from my labors, the chickens are squawking, the cows are mooing and the bales of hay are strewn all over the yard waiting to be stacked. I have to close out and file away the workshop I taught yesterday, send out the invoices for my books that have been ordered, update my Website, get the materials ready for the summer Orff program ad in the magazine, create an application form for the SF School Orff Intern Program I’m trying to birth, attend to the details of the local Orff chapter Miniconference I’m chairing and on and on. Unlike the satisfaction of good hard work with bundles of hay, a moment of bovine intimacy squirting milk in a pail and earning the love of the chickens as I toss out their feed in the bright sunshine or misty rain, I’m sitting at a screen dealing with abstractions. The words “Personal Assistant" come to mind here. Anyone looking for a job?

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy Bach while slogging through the black lines on the glowing screen throwing out corn to the demanding tasks pecking at my feet, stacking my papers and milking my imagination to plan next week’s classes. Happy Sunday!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Janus Portal

“One should stir oneself with poetry
  Stand firm in ritual.
  Complete oneself in music.”

I grew up in a household in which ritual meant watching the Walt Disney Hour on T.V. after my bath on Sunday night. Yet despite its absence in my own childhood, ritual became something essential in my music teaching and a significant part of what I had to contribute to the school community. And most importantly, I discovered that the kids warmed to it and both took it seriously and felt the play in it.

Like today. With my first classes of the New Year with 2nd and 4th grade, I brought out the metal standing song-sheet holder to be a doorway of sorts, put down a cloth before it with a large Tibetan bowl on one side and a small one on the other. On the other side was a circle of handbells on the floor. The kids walked in and immediately recognized it all, eager to tell their new fellow classmates what was about to happen.

It’s really a “you just have to be there” kind of event, but a short description is worthwhile here. The kids sit in line sitting in an aikido-like kneeling posture with hands on their legs and backs straight. One by one, they sit on the cloth between the gongs and privately to themselves, think of one music class challenge or behavior they want to put behind them. I give them a few prompts, mostly based on their behavior in the last five minutes. “For example, you might decide not to talk out without raising your hand or to stop pinching your neighbor while the teacher is talking or to not pick up the cowbell from the shelf without permission.” They then ring the larger bowl to send that behavior back into the old year.

Next they think of something they’d like to accomplish in the New Year. Again, some ideas: “It could be something like learn all the words to The Frozen Logger song or learn three new notes on the recorder or master the grapevine step in our Greek folk dance.” With their own intention in mind, they send if forward ringing the small bowl. They then step through the portal and sit behind one of the handbells. And there they wait, silent and still, while their classmates ring the bowls and step through the doorway one by one. It’s really quite something to behold, these serious young children so quietly reflective while the air rings with the long tones of two Tibetan bowls.

When the last one steps through and takes his or her seat, we lift up the bells and ring vigorously while exuberantly proclaiming “Happy New Year!!” —a perfect way to break the accumulated tension of so much solemnity! We then sing a familiar “Welcome to the New Year” song and off we go with a class about handbells, creating little pieces with different musical patterns.

Confucius had it right. We’ve stirred ourselves with a little sung poem, stood firm in the New Year ritual and completed the class with some fine music. We’ve learned that it helps to make conscious intentions and resolve to change, make little vows to leave aside bad habits and cultivate new good ones. (Here we keep it private, though I tell the kids that later I might ask them to share what their hope was or let me know when they’ve achieved it.) We learn that sending wishes out with the vibrations of beautiful tones adds another dimension to it all. We’ve enjoyed all the benefits of ritual common to all times and places without any of the baggage of dogma or theology.

We’ve also learned a bit of Roman mythology, that January was named for the god Janus who had two faces that could look behind and ahead at the same time, that he is the god of beginnings and endings, transitions, gates, doors and doorways. As such, he was the right figure to invoke for my first music classes of 2013 and the kids’ first time with me as their teacher again since two years ago (I alternate grades with my colleagues and see the same kids every other year). I needed it to make the transition, the kids needed it to make the transition and most importantly, it worked. We had a lovely, calm, centered and exuberant first class together, setting the tone for the rest of the year to follow.

After such a satisfying day, time to take a bath and watch an old Disney film. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fading Rock Star

Remember the old T.V. show Cheers? And how everyone yelled “Norm!” when that lovable character entered the bar? For years now, that’s been me when I walk in the door at pre-school singing. “Dougie!!” the kids shout in unison. It got so out of hand I had to insist on the silent cheer, fists in the air gesturing “Hooray!!” as I got my guitar out of the case. No matter what else was happening in my life, I could always count on this little hit of rock star fame at least once a week.

Until today.

It was my first day back teaching school after some seven months away (counting summer vacation). I had dropped in a few times in the Fall and even taught for five days straight around Halloween, but now this was the real deal. Every morning awaken to the alarm, drive in the near dark to school, struggle with parking amidst streetcleaning, PG &E work and school construction and show up at class after class. 8th grade, 8th grade, 6th grade, a moment to visit the facilities, then Bam! 5 year olds, 5 year olds. Short lunch and singing time, short meeting and then, joy of all joys!, preschool singing. I walked into the room full of kids and was met with exuberant… silence.

Ouch! Was this my signal to start booking gigs as a has-been singer in Las Vegas? My demotion from giving Carnegie Hall-like concerts to appearing at the Rotary Club luncheon? My move from swinging with the wee ones at the Blue Note to getting on the birthday party circuit with a clown nose?

Well, to be fair, 1/3 of the kids were three-year olds who hadn’t really met me yet. As for the other 2/3rds, seven months in the life of a 4 or 5 -year-old is a pretty big percentage of their life span. They had switched—understandably— to adoring my colleague James and I was just a dim memory in their forming brain cells.

But I’m determined to get my mojo working and win their adoration anew. Pull out the show stoppers like “Free at Last!” and “Pat Works on the Railway” and “John Henry” that gets them so quiet just as John “lays down his hammer and he dies” and see if they can once again associate me with great music and festive celebration.

Check with me in a month. If it doesn’t work, I’ll see you in Las Vegas.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Bobby Schumann Yiddish Country Folk-Rock Blues

What do you get when a renowned conductor of a Symphony Orchestra sings old Yiddish novelty songs and then plays Schumann on the piano, a Midwestern author sings songs by the Carter Family, Incredible String Band and Grateful Dead, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, sings some gut-bucket blues accompanied by electric guitar, accordion and trombone? A stirring welcome back to the U.S. of A.!!!

After the weird sensation of waking up in Peru and going to sleep in San Francisco, we set off to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Radio Show at the S.F. Opera House and were treated to a reminder of what it feels like to live in diversity in all its rainbow splendor. I admire the clarity and focus of homogenous culture, the crystal clear sense of identity and belonging with an accompanying mythology, music and dance style, dress, food and cultural habits, but it’s far from the world I grew up in. And musically at least, it’s a world in which the borders of one’s chosen music are increasingly malleable. How fantastic to hear blues and Yiddish songs in an opera house, Tony Bennet and Ravi Shankar (r.i.p.) and Keith Jarrett in a symphony hall, Moroccan folk musicians and hip-hop artists in a jazz club!

From the show, it was on to Trader Joes and a choice of tofu, tacos, teriyaki, Thai noodles, tabouli, tortellini, turkey and truffles. Back home to bookshelves filled with Rilke, Rumi, Roth, Robbins, Rushdie, to my CD collection of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bird, Burton, Brubeck, Beatles, Beach Boys, Brown (James), Brazilian samba, Bulgarian bagpipe, Bolivian panpipes. It’s a weird, wild and wacky world here in the U.S. and just right for this Russian Jew Unitarian Buddhist Jazz musician who has dabbled in Bulgarian bagpipe, Balinese gamelan, Burkina Faso xylophone and beyond traveling to six continents spreading the ideas of a German composer. It’s a world where a Shakespeare sonnet and the Mona Lisa live in the same song as Mickey Mouse and cellophane (Cole Porter’s You’re the Top), where King Tut made it into Michael Tilson Thomas’s father’s novelty song and Elvin Bishop’s blues song, where the rapper Tupac took his name from one of the last Inca emperors (Tupac Amaru).

The mix of high and low culture, of black, white, red and brown, of an esteemed thinker like Jungian psychologist James Hillman (r.i.p.) featured on Oprah— it’s all as American as apple pie—served with soy strawberry balsamic ice cream and a side of tiramisu. Unbelievably, some of us (particularly in a major political party which shall remain nameless) are still stuck in the old divisions that would keep it all apart and all I can say is that they’re missing a great party. As for me, I’m happy to be back home where I can play the Bobby Schumann Yiddish Country Folk-Rock Blues. With a verse or two in Spanish.

And off I go to visit my Mom and do just that. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Viva Peru!

Already light at 5:30 a.m., Cuzco shining outside the corner-room windows, it’s time to do the final pack and bid farewell to Peru. This the 59th country of my travels and one that has earned my affection. I think I’ve finally stopped the search for the country and culture of my dreams. Doesn’t exist. That culture lies within the individual heart and mind and in any group of folks who share a collective dream about how to work, play and love together. But that frees me to enjoy just simply “what is” in each place and take a piece of it back to my own community.

So a fond farewell to Peru. To quinoa soup, ceviche, grilled trout, pisco sours, chichi morada, coca tea, potatoes, potatoes and yet again, potatoes, to cuye, the guinea pig delicacy none of my fellow travelers (thankfully!) tried, to cow’s heads in markets, licuado fruit shakes, Brazil nuts, round white bread. Goodbye to red-tiled roofs and cobblestone streets, to Inca ruins with mortarless stone work, to town plazas and women dressed in their distinctive hats, colorful skirts and blouses carrying baby alpacas for photo ops.

Goodbye to the constant presence of the Andes, thin mountain air, morning mist, rain, rain, rain, and then the gift of sunshine. Goodbye to llamas and hummingbirds, friendly dogs and the condors I never once saw. Goodbye to the restaurant and bus recordings of Andean music, with its formulaic major to minor chord changes, to The Condor Passes song that Paul Simon made famous, to the non-presence of live Peruvian bands on street corners because they’re all in London, Paris, Madrid, Athens, Moscow, Bangkok, Beijing, Tokyo, San Francisco, you name it.

Goodbye to Tupac Amaru, to Hiram Bingham, to Pachamama, Pizarro and the Conquistadores, to paintings of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus with her nipple showing, of the Angel Gabriel stomping on the Devil who is sometimes red and sometimes black, of the Last Supper with guinea pig on the table. Goodbye to markets filled with alpaca blankets, ponchos, sweaters (I bought one for granddaughter Zadie!), hats with pigtails, clay ocarinas and more, to bargaining, to slightly torn dollars rejected at the money changers, to soles coins, to Visa cards that won’t work when the Internet is down.

Never delved much into recent Peruvian history, but the last thirty years seems the archetypal volatile politics of South American’s reputation— murder, mayhem, Shining Path terrorists, bribery, extortion, an ex-President in jail and more. Not to mention the coca trade exports to Colombia and beyond. But also an indigenous President and Truth and Reconciliation Hearings to heal some of the grief and loss. Things seem to be better now and one can only hope that the scales will keep tipping towards justice and genuine democracy.

And of course, a final farewell to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, where my body, mind and heart were put to the test and barely passed. But there was glory in the effort, pride in the achievement and some soul-stirring photos to keep me company when things feel too easy or bland.

So thank you, Peru, for a marvelous two weeks. May the best of the Inca spirit carry on and Pachamama move you forward into the 21st century with one foot in the best of the past.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Saturn Cycle

It was a perfect last day of travel. Just ambled around a small Peruvian town and sat on a bench by the river. My wife on one side sketching, my daughter on the other looking through the rough draft of my new book and marking it up, me writing in my journal. The sun just strong enough to be warm, the breeze just cool enough to keep us comfortable. Across the way the Inca ruins and mountains that cradle this Sacred Valley, by our feet, a well-fed dog borrowing our shade. The smell of wood burning that brings me, the way that only smells can, to those rural primary cultures where I have spent so many happy days of my long life. And the quality of silence, no drone of freeway traffic or blaring horns, just the rush of the river and a distant rooster call. Delicious.

Tomorrow I begin the journey home after three glorious weeks of travel, each part of it feeling like months ago. The teaching in Brazil, the time in Buenos Aires, the Cuzco Christmas, the Machu Picchu adventure, the Ollantaytambo New Year’s. I remember writing the  “Home for the Holidays” blog and feeling reluctant to leave San Francisco and now can’t imagine having missed this trip. Part of me ready for the comforts and familiarity of home, but sitting on that bench, part of me wondering why I’m looking forward to stepping back up on the merry-go-round, with its morning alarm clocks, drive through traffic, seven classes a day with kids, staff meetings, the whole nine yards of my busyness and business. Maybe I should just keep traveling.

Had lunch at a lovely hidden jewel of a restaurant, our last great Menu del Dia deal where you get a soup, entrée and dessert for the equivalent of $7.00. Talia’s friend Zoe joined us with two more Argentine friends at the beginning of a six-month trip around South America. Zoe and Talia planning the next leg of their two-month wanderlust and all of them around 28 years old, the end of the Saturn Cycle where one phase of life ends and the next begins. That was certainly true for me all those years back when I ended my year-round trip around the world on my 28th birthday and returned to San Francisco to get married, have kids, buy a house and go back to work at the school that I’ve never left.

That was my time, this is theirs and I’m not really envious. I’ll happy to be teaching kids, playing piano regularly, cooking my own meals instead of spending all those hours sitting in restaurants, arranging buses and figuring out my next stop. But it was a beautiful time, a hearkening back beyond the music-teacher-travels to something closer to the skin, that glorious sense of wandering through this wide, wonderful world trying to feel the beating heart of other lands and cultures, jumping into the fray of the marketplace, sloshing through mud in the back country, sitting on a bench by the river just happy to smell the air and be alive.

Safe travels, young people, and know that this time will be forever cherished as you step into the next phases of your life. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Body Heat

When we wake up each morning, parts of the brain are up before others, the ones whose main job is survival. “Damn! It’s cold!” they shout and off we go throwing on sweaters, turning on the heat, putting a log on the fire or boiling water for coffee. Deciding whether Deconstructionist Theory comes from valid assumptions or not is way on the back-burner, if it makes it to the stovetop at all. Immediate comfort is first on the agenda and we’ll do whatever it takes.

Every morning this past week as I set out on the Inca Trail, I put on jeans, rainpants, thermal undershirt, shirt, vest, sweatshirt and poncho. My primary concern was to listen to the brain’s regulatory alarm clock; “Get warm! Now!” Off we went and by the time we had climbed some 100 stone steps, the alarm rang again: “Shed! Shed!” And so a long pause as I peeled the layers off, changed to shorts and wondered why I even bothered to bundle up.

“Chopping wood heats you twice, “goes the old country wisdom and part of that applies to hiking. Once you start hiking, especially uphill, the body heat rises from the effort and you don’t need all those extra animal or artificial skins to warm us. Makes me wonder why I can’t remember that and start the day with slight discomfort knowing that the body will warm up. Because then I’m stuck with my backpack filled with blue jeans, rainpants, vest, sweatshirt, etc. to lug around for the rest of the day.

As with the body, so with the heart and mind. We lug around the machines and accoutrements that layer us with recorded music, filmed stories, electronic messages all at the click of a button. But if we exercise our own imagination, get the heart out hiking in a world filled with wonder, sing our own songs and beat our own rhythms, we generate our own mental and emotional heat and feel lighter, more independent, less weighed down. Like all of us, I’m nervous and forgetful and short on faith that I can warm myself and so throw the i-Pod, computer, DVD, book and more into the backpack— and then have to carry that heavy load for the rest of the trip.

Naturally, I’m not going to throw out my rainpants or sweater or computer or i-Pod. They all serve their purpose and I’m grateful for their help and company. But fresh from hiking, just a reminder to myself to show more faith in the body’s ability to generate its own heat, the heart’s ability to evoke its own emotion, the mind’s ability to create its own imagery and soulful stories. We all need some time off the grid of the entertainment industry and its perpetual invitation to overdress and bundle up beyond what’s necessary.

I’m sure there’s some more stimulating metaphors hidden inside the main hiking theme, but just now the sun went away and I’m freezing. Got to rummage through my backpack for my sweater.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bringing in the Year

It’s the first day of the year and the folks are gathering in the Ollantaytambo Plaza in the highlands of Peru. There’s a stage, 50 red chairs below it and the loudspeakers with the over-amped mikes. Out from the church come the colorfully-clad conch-shell-blowing Quechua-speaking folks with confetti-size yellow flower petals in their hair. Kids and adults, men and women blow on the shells in random rhythms as they approach the chairs in the plaza. The Municipal Representatives sit on stage and shout into the microphones. Through the distortion I can pick up the platitudes of “God, Country and Community.” They all rise for the recorded national anthem and off they go again: “”Dios! La Patria! La Comunidad de Ollantaytambo!” The whole show is a reaffirmation of commitment, with the usual promises of reward and threats of punishment.

What seemed promising as a colorful, horn-blowing Festival is reduced to a dull Chamber of Commerce Ceremony. I think of Brain Rule No. 5—“we don’t pay attention to boring things” and find my gaze lifted to the green mountains cradling the town, who look down unimpressed by the New Year fal-de-ral, taking their breaths in thousand-year gulps. The sun blazes down through the thin air, a light breeze brings some relief, the loudspeaker blares on without a moment’s pause. A little girl in a pink dress and a yellow balloon skips past two soldiers with submachine guns, the conch horns blow again and the deed is done. All have reaffirmed their commitment to walk through the remaining 364 days with God, Country and Community foremost in their hearts. Or at least until tomorrow.

The tourists disperse as well as the locals and we climb up to some more Inca ruins, the town receding with each step. After all the rainy views in the Machu Picchu trek, it’s a nice contrast to see the village lit in sun. The usual photo ops (see above) and down to a three hour lunch— good food, slow service. Then back to the room, where I worked a bit on my new book and changed (after almost two years!) the cover photo of my blog.

It’s an auspicious beginning to the year, but now dinner calls and we’re all in that travel-weary sense of being somewhat tired of sitting in restaurants. Hoping for faster service, we set off into town, soon to close out the first day of the journey through the year.

Rummy 500 and the New Year

Each activity has its own rhythm, that sense of building on itself until the player hits some stride where things flow more effortlessly and more fully. Traveling is no exception. In my third week now and in that traveler’s bliss when one lowers expectations about what will happen and opens wide to the surprise and serendipity of whatever does.

And so having arrived in the small town— population 700— of Ollantaytambo, Peru to spend New Year’s Eve with my wife and daughter, my daughter's American and her Argentine friend, we had vague hopes of finding some stirring festival in the plaza as the clock ticked toward midnight. We finished a satisfying meal in a lovely restaurant and headed to the town square at 11:15 pm. And there we found— well, not much. A bunch of random kids setting off firecrackers accompanied by the tinny electronic recording of the crèche next to the green plastic bottle Christmas tree. The word was that the real party was tomorrow.

So we went back to the hotel room and played some Rummy 500 cards while listening to Helen Merrill singing Cole Porter on my computer. The game ended five minutes before midnight, Moon River came on the i-Tunes list, fireworks starting exploding out the window and voila!, 2013 had officially begun. Though not in San Francisco, where it was only 9:00 pm. And it had long passed in Madrid, Bangkok, Beijing and a host of other places where distant friends were celebrating. New Year is not a moment, but a work in progress.

The card game and familiar songs proved to be as good a way to mark the occasion as participating in ancient Peruvian rituals. And why not? Part of travel's delight is to check in on your old familiar world with new appreciation. It was delicious to hear some good jazz and just fun to play games with friends.

Especially Rummy 500. I had forgotten how much I liked this superior version of Gin Rummy. It’s a game where you start building in one direction— a straight here, three of a kind there, but when you make those hard choices and discard, breaking up some of your plans, it turns out that nothing is irrevocable. The card you may have needed in the future is still on the table available for you to take back. It’s the ultimate in flexibility. You do have to choose, but you can backtrack and move forward as needed, leaving that little window open that allows the perpetual presence of possibility. I like that.

It also is satisfying that the person who goes out first has a small advantage as the others must subtract the points from their remaining cards left in their hands. But they still can earn points, sometimes even more than the person who finishes the hand first. So everyone has the sense of adding to their score each hand, taking that small (or large) step of progress forward that gives us encouragement.

And so may the year be its own version of Rummy 500, choosing one path over another as we always must, but with the flexibility to retrieve your discards, to head down new paths, to stay the course, as the occasion demands. And I suggest that as you make your list of intentions for the year, you start this first day of 2013 with a rollicking game of Rummy 500 with friends and family.

While listening to Peruvian music.